Songs of Faith (Pt. 4): Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah

Isaiah 58:6-12 (New Revised Standard Version)

Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am. If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.

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This morning we arrive at the final part of a series of sermons titled "Songs of Faith," using my favorite hymn, "Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah." As I've wrapped up my time here this past month, I've enjoyed preaching sermons based off of hymns that come from some of your favorite hymns. And as I thought about what I wanted to say in this last sermon, I felt that this was a fitting hymn, not only because of the music itself but because the words themselves are appropriate to where we find ourselves today…

Like we have done for the past few weeks we'll take a brief look at the person behind the hymn that we will sing after the sermon this morning. The author of our hymn this morning is a man by the name of William Williams… Now before his ministry, primarily in Wales, Williams had studied medicine before becoming an itinerant preacher. For some reason, it seems like many hymn writers had come from a medical background… His hymn, "Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah," was initially titled, "A Prayer For Strength To Go Through The Wilderness Of The World," which is a fitting though lengthy title. In his hymns, Williams often evoked the metaphor of "pilgrimage," a metaphor that is used heavily in the hymn for today.  

I was on a "pilgrimage" of sorts, or at least I was on a journey that took me outside of my comfort zone. During my first trip to Korea, I got lost while navigating the subway system. I didn't really know any Korean at the time, and while there were signs in English, I couldn't make heads or tails of what any of them meant. I felt embarrassed, I thought that I could get to where I needed to go without asking a friend to come and get me, but I couldn't find the way. I was frustrated that I didn't know where it was I was supposed to go, but I eventually set aside my pride and found someone to ask for help. With the limited Korean, I knew I asked them if they spoke English. Nodding their head, I asked them how I could get to the address I had written down, and they kindly wrote down directions on how to get to where I was going. Seeing that I didn't look confident they offered to ride with me to make sure I got off at the right station.

I'm not sure why, but it's hard asking for directions, especially in times when we find that we are not sure where we are going. Maybe it's because we have trouble trusting someone we've never met before. Perhaps it's because we thought that if we just worked hard enough things would turn out okay. But regardless of whether we are asking for directions or seeking out what lies ahead of us, we know that our journey to find our way through life cannot be made alone. We know as people who have been baptized, who eat the bread and drink from the cup, that God is one who often journeys with us, showing us the way of God. Yet sometimes, even when we have God by our side, it can be hard to see how God is acting in our lives.

The uncertainty of not knowing, not knowing what will happen next, the difficulty of not knowing how people will react, etc., is a source of high anxiety for me… When I've talked with my therapist about it, she always reminds me that we don't mind readers and that we have to live with a certain level of not knowing what is going to happen next. It's something I've been working on over the past year as I remember the words of the Prophet Isaiah, who in this morning's passage wrote, "The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail."  

Not knowing what tomorrow brings naturally makes us feel uneasy, we enjoy being able to understand what is going to come around the corner. And yet, in a strange way, there is a sense of comfort in the uncertainty of tomorrow as well. Whatever happens to us or to those around us is out of control; we simply can't know what the future holds even if we tried. There is an idiom: "Let it go, and let God." In this hymn by William Williams, we are given a way to express these words as a prayer. As a prayer that God would guide us as we walk through the unknown parts of life. It's a prayer that I need for today, for tomorrow and the day after tomorrow… It's a prayer that you also need for today, for tomorrow and the day after tomorrow. For in all the times of uncertainty, there is the odd hint of comfort in knowing that not having control, not knowing, is okay.

"Guide me, O though great Jehovah, pilgrim in this barren land…" Though the terrain may seem impossible and the ground unworkable, God is there leading the way. Through the desert, God led the people of Israel out of the land of Egypt, from an area that barren, to a land that was flowing with milk and honey. We may go kicking and screaming, because we don't like the discomfort the unknown brings, but we may be surprised at what we'll find if we are willing to trust that God is with us and embrace the unknown as a friend instead of as an adversary. Remember that there are times when we need to, "Let it go, and let God…"

The image of a pilgrimage or journey, as Williams uses them,  is really a summary of our lives. It falls in line with the words of the Prophet Isaiah, who highlights both the highs and the lows of life, and everything else in between. It can feel discouraging when things don't go the way we want them too… I mean you and I have put a lot of blood sweat and tears into pursuing our passions and goals so it can feel disorienting when the unknown parts of life throw things into disarray… And in those moments we might run into a situation where we forget that God is walking along the same path we are.

But we only have to look at Scripture once again to find that others were also caught up in the chaos of a single moment and forgot that God was walking with them… You might remember this story, it's one that I've preached on here before, it was about Cleopas and his companion as they walked on the Road to Emmaus. Cleopas and those traveling with him were so distraught after the death of Jesus, they didn't even recognize that it was Jesus who was walking alongside them the whole time. And by the time they reach the city they still haven't figured things out… But embracing the situation, they invite the stranger, Jesus, in for a meal. And when Jesus finally breaks the bread, their eyes are open, and they realize that the person who had been traveling with them for that whole period was Jesus!

When the time comes, and we have the veil lifted from our face, we'll find that that is when we are not only in the presence of God but also in the presence of one another. And remembering that life is a pilgrimage that is done by inviting those around you, the possibilities of God's work becomes endless. I'm excited to see how the Spirit of God continues to work in this place. I'm excited to see how the Spirit of God continues to foster innovation, creativity, and boldness to be the hands and feet in this community… I'm hopeful that the Spirit of God will nurture a community of faith here in this place that will live out the mission that it has been given.

That's not to say there won't be ups and downs, but I pray that you'll all remain healthy. Because even though I've said it before, I'll repeat it, life is too short to hold onto petty grudges… And let me say that God doesn't have time for those kinds of complaints. But if we put our trust in God, if we put our trust in one another, then we will find that even the unexpected, might not always lead to bad things. And in those cases where things really don't work out then that is why we have others and God to place our fears and anxieties as we hear in the last verse of Williams hymn, "When I tread the verge of Jordan, Bid my anxious fears subside; Death of death and hell's Destruction, Land me safe on Canaan's side."

God is what gives the Church, gives us life, so that we may be guided by the power of the Holy Spirit. Throughout all seasons of life, through the expected and unexpected, God is there. In our calling to protect those who are vulnerable, those who are without a community to love them, those who are seeking fellow companions in their pilgrimage, we reach out knowing that things won't always go the way we had planned. But that doesn't mean we give it, that doesn't mean we stop trying to live into the identities we have been provided by God, that doesn't mean we take our ball home, because things didn't go our way… No, because we gather together to read from Holy Scripture, to meditate together, to listen for the voice of God together so that each and every day we become more and more like the one we were called to follow…

And remember, that when we feel frustrated that things seem to be out of our control, "Let it go, and let God." We can't always control what will happen tomorrow or the day after tomorrow, but we can control how we will follow God in loving others more deeply, in caring more profoundly and living a life that is steeped in faith and fellowship. Amen.



Songs of Faith (Pt. 3): When I Survey The Wondrous Cross

John 19:31-37 (New Revised Standard Version)

Since it was the day of Preparation, the Jews did not want the bodies left on the cross during the sabbath, especially because that sabbath was a day of great solemnity. So they asked Pilate to have the legs of the crucified men broken and the bodies removed. Then the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first and of the other who had been crucified with him. But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. Instead, one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once blood and water came out. (He who saw this has testified so that you also may believe. His testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth.) These things occurred so that the scripture might be fulfilled, “None of his bones shall be broken.” And again another passage of scripture says, “They will look on the one whom they have pierced.”

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This morning we continue on in our Lenten series “Songs of Faith,” by focusing on the text that relates to the hymn, “When I Survey The Wondrous Cross.” I’ll do my best try and keep things on the lighter side this week, which may seem ironic when talking about the cross, but we’ll see how things go. On another note, I hope that during this Season of Lent you have something that fills our souls… Some folks have told me about the beautiful spiritual practices they have been doing, and let me say that it is never too late to start a Lenten or year-long spiritual discipline. I think that how we choose to practice Lent is a mirror that shows us what things are and aren’t necessary for our lives… And it shows what things we are and aren’t willing to lay down at the foot of the cross.

But before we dive too deep into the passage for today, we’ll take another brief look at the author behind today’s hymn. It was said that on one Sunday afternoon a young Isaac Watts complained to his father about how terrible were the hymns that were sung in church. His father, who was also the pastor of the church, scolded Watts and said, “I’d like to see you write something better!” Well, then legend has it that the young Isaac Watts retreated to his room for the night and came up with his first hymn, which was received with great excitement at the Sunday evening service that same day. Isaac Watts appreciated the power of sacred music and often took well-known tunes and turned them into hymns. There are over 600 hymns which are said to be credited to Isaac Watts, including the focuses of today’s sermon, “When I Survey The Wondrous Cross.”

Our eyes are immediately drawn upwards towards the cross starting in the very first verse of Isaac Watts’ hymn, “When I survey the wondrous cross on which the Prince of glory died, my richest gain I count but loss, and pour contempt on all my pride.” It puts into perspective the cost of grace, the cost of love, that God poured out without any strings attached, it is there for all who seek it. In all reality, it should make us stop and wonder at how great a gift this was, especially when you consider how brutal crucifixions actually were. Crucifixions were not meant to kill people instantaneously… On the contrary, they were designed to make people agonize in public for long enough that those who considered doing misdeeds against the Roman Empire would think twice about committing such acts.

What are the things that keep us from coming to the foot of the cross and being in the presence of Jesus? And know that Jesus has risen, but technically we haven’t arrived at that point in the church calendar yet, and the cross is still a place for us to come and be in the presence of God as well. There is a multitude of art pieces that try to capture the moment of Jesus’ crucifixion, but I don’t think that there is anyone painting or piece of music that can truly encapsulate everything that happened the moment that Christ laid down his life for the world.  “See, from his head, his hands, his feet, sorrow, and love flow mingled down,” write Isaac Watt and, “Did e'er such love and sorrow meet, or thorns compose so rich a crown?” Perhaps the weight of those words and the things that they represent are what makes it feel like we are unable to come and stand at the foot of the cross.

When we come and stand at the foot of the cross, we do so with a bag of mixed feelings containing the joys and sorrows of life. The cross is one of those things that brings both clarity and moments of contemplation. Recently I came across a funny comic strip that showed Jesus sitting on a park bench with a stranger. Jesus says, “I want you to follow me.” The stranger replies, “On Facebook?” “No,” Jesus says, “I literally want you to follow me.” “Oh,” replied the stranger, “I get it now… So you mean on Twitter?” The comic shows Jesus putting his face in the palm of his hand and then taking a deep breath. Jesus looks up and tells the stranger, “Okay… I’m going to start over again, and you can let me know where I lose you.” The great thing is that Jesus is a patient mentor, friend, and teacher… And truth be told we certainly in need of someone like that to walk alongside us as we navigate the perils of life.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the last couple of years and about people who have been fellow travelers on this journey of life and faith. I’ve thought about our gifted ministers of music: Carl, Sara, and Jenny, and everyone who helps lead worship, as they’ve been very accommodating to my desire to try out new kinds of music… I’ve thought about Mary Sandford and John Suddith, who have shared with me a myriad of stories about life and faith and the those who have come before. I’ve thought about the Sunday morning group that has been meeting and the conversations we have had about a whole assortment of different topics. And when it comes to it, I’ve really just thought about everyone who I met this past couple of years both those here in Watertown and those who I’ve journeyed within other contexts as well, even if just for a little while. Who have you been walking alongside with on this journey that leads to the foot of the cross? It certainly frames things differently when you think about how our lives all interconnect and come together.

My favorite verse of this hymn is probably the last because it captures all these things. It is the one where Isaac Watts writes, “Were the whole realm of nature mine, that were a present far too small. Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.” At the foot of the cross, there is love so amazing, so divine, that it demands our souls, our all. And that divine love is so amazing how can we keep it to ourselves? We should naturally want to go out and share it with the whole wide world. As God gave the gift of love to the world, it is our responsibility to help make sure that that love is accessible to all people, in every time, and in every place. And that can’t happen if we don’t actually go out and share the good news of such love with who is around us. Slipping notes to passerbys under the cracks of the church door would not be an effective means of spreading that good news. It takes a spirit that is willing to take risks, to dream, and to live boldly in their identity as people created in the image of God.

When you look at the reading for this morning and then look at the hymn text for “When I Survey The Wondrous Cross,” you should feel a sense of reverent awe, but also a sense of tenderness and love that is so divine, it has the power to bring the world together. In a previous sermon, I once talked about “two-handed giving.” We cannot give to God entirely if we have one hand open and one hand held tightly shut behind our backs. That idea of two-handed giving applies to this morning’s reading as well. How can we come before Jesus who bore the weight of the cross if we are not willing to lay everything at his feet, the things that weigh heavily on our hearts with hands that are open? And then if we come to the cross with open hands, we need to be willing to turn to those around us and share with them the love, the compassion, and grace we have received because that is what we find when we come and stand at the foot of the cross.

In the end, when you take all these things together, I want to lift up a few points that I think will be important for you all, and for this church, as you move forward together… And since I didn’t want to cram a final farewell into one sermon, I thought I would break that up into what was said to today and the last part of this sermon series which will be next week, so here we go:

  • As you continue to strive to follow in the footsteps of Christ, don’t forget to stop and enjoy a little fun and humor along the way. Even though the Bible doesn’t include any jokes by Jesus, I’m sure that he had his moments with the disciples. I’ve been reminded by my good friend Gerda Barbour, that we all need a good laugh every now and then.

  • Our community of faith is made up of people, not programs… I think that at the heart of the cross you will find that God emphasizes the importance of relationships. The relationships that we have with God and the relationships with have with those around us… Programs are important, but they don’t mean anything if you don’t maintain the core of what it means to be a part of a community of faith, which is the people who belong to it and those around it.

  • Finally on a similar note I would lift up the importance of the love that is found at the cross as being something that will carry you forward for years to come. Love can’t be bought, sold, or traded like some generic commodity. Love, especially the divine love that comes from God, is something that is received and shared without stipulations or expectations.

When you take all these things, I think we find that we have worked towards living a life that brings us closer to the cross, closer to the being with God who dwells in the company of others as well. When you take all these things together, I think that what you will find is that wondrous cross that has inspired generations of people who have come before us, and ages who will come after us as well who have been good and faithful disciples. Amen.



Songs of Faith (Pt. 2): Revive Us Again

Psalm 80 (New Revised Standard Version)

Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel, you who lead Joseph like a flock! You who are enthroned upon the cherubim, shine forth before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh. Stir up your might, and come to save us! Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved. O Lord God of hosts, how long will you be angry with your people’s prayers? You have fed them with the bread of tears, and given them tears to drink in full measure. You make us the scorn of our neighbors; our enemies laugh among themselves. Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved. You brought a vine out of Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it. You cleared the ground for it; it took deep root and filled the land. The mountains were covered with its shade, the mighty cedars with its branches; it sent out its branches to the sea, and its shoots to the River. Why then have you broken down its walls,  so that all who pass along the way pluck its fruit? The boar from the forest ravages it, and all that move in the field feed on it. Turn again, O God of hosts; look down from heaven, and see; have regard for this vine, the stock that your right hand planted. They have burned it with fire, they have cut it down; may they perish at the rebuke of your countenance. But let your hand be upon the one at your right hand, the one whom you made strong for yourself. Then we will never turn back from you; give us life, and we will call on your name. Restore us, O Lord God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.

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This morning we continue in our Lenten series “Songs of Faith” by looking at the hymn “Revive Us Again.” If you pay attention, you’ll hear the words of Psalm 80 echoing in the verses of this hymn, Revive us again - fill each heart with thy love; May each soul be rekindled with fire from above. It doesn’t sound that far off from the words of the psalmist who wrote, “Restore us, O Lord God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved…” Let those words sink in for a bit this morning… Let them sink into your heart and soul… I think the events of this past week and the events of this coming week are a reminder that we also need to set aside some time for God to rejuvenate our souls, to enliven them, to comfort them, to fan them with the flames of the Holy Spirit. “Restore us, O Lord…” These are potent words if we are willing to utter them from a place that is authentic and vulnerable.

The author of the hymn that inspired today’s sermon was written by the Rev. Dr. (Medical) William Paton Mackay. Born in Scotland in the year 1839, Mackay attended the University of Edinburgh where in 1870 he wrote a thesis on leprosy. William Paton Mackay worked in the field of medicine for many years before he became a minister. In reflecting on his conversion, Mackay wrote that his faith was inspired after he found his own Bible among the possessions of a patient who was dying. The Bible that Mackay found was given to him by his mother, but he sold it to earn extra income. Upon entering the ministry, he served the Prospect Street Presbyterian Church in Hull, where he wrote a handful of hymns, the most known being “Revive Us Again.”

There is an ironic sense of beauty in the words “revive us again” or “restore us, O Lord of hosts…” The irony lies in the fact that there is a plea for redemption, for restoration, but that plea to God comes only after something has gone wrong (usually because we, like God’s chosen people in the Old Testament, have done something that leads to significant pain and suffering). You hear the psalmist asking God, “How long? How long, O Lord, will you be angry with your people?” But it was because of the people that God had chosen had wandered off the path of faithfulness in an attempt to try and control the world themselves. We’re guilty of this as well… We’ve fallen victim to the tempting belief that we can shape a future for ourselves that only focuses on our own well-being, to a world of our own design. And that is not the only thing that we have convinced ourselves into believing…

We have convinced ourselves that we can blame everything, and everyone else for the wrongs of this world except ourselves, and our deep and steadfast denial of the answers that are right in front of us. We’ve fallen victim to hate, to prejudice, to fears of those who are not like us and we know what the consequences are! We know what the results are, we know what pain and suffering it will bring, but we ignore it, saying the same old lines time and time again… And when the time comes, when the time that we have ignored arrives, we cry out to God asking for help, and we cry out to others sending nothing but thoughts and prayers… When, oh when, will be able to cry out “restore us, O Lord of hosts,” from a place that is true, authentic, and vulnerable?

This past week when 50 people died because words of ignorance and hate inspired terrorists, is that enough for us to cry out to God to ask for forgiveness, for a chance to redeem ourselves? Or do we need to wait for another incident of our own making, before we finally have the scales fall from our eyes to see that the key for binding our broken hearts together is right in front of us! Because if it hasn’t been clear already from things I’ve said, I’m tired of hearing the same old lines, I’m tired of sending only prayers, and if we look at the reading this morning we will find that the psalmist is weary of those things as well! It takes more than just words, even if they are in the form of a prayer, to restore our hearts to a place where we are Kingdom builders instead of Kingdom destroyers. But your heart, our hearts, need to be in an area that is ready to be molded, to be challenged, to be opened to new possibilities.

There’s one thing in the reading for this morning that stands out to me because it evokes such a provocative image, “O Lord God of hosts, how long will you be angry with your people’s prayers? You have fed them with the bread of tears, and given them tears to drink in full measure.” We have feasted on the bread of tears for long enough… I’m tired of having my glass run over with tears because I almost have no more tears to give… We are a united human family… We are children created in the image of the living God. Life is too short for things like petty grudges and childish attitudes, and life is indeed too short for us to cling onto old ways that take the breath away instead of sanctifying it, treasuring it, as something precious and sacred. Have you had your fill of the bread of tears and a cup of tears? I have, and I think that most of us are ready for something new…

I think this morning’s reading from Psalm 80 would pair nicely with another psalm where it is written, “Weeping comes in the night, but joy cometh in the morning.” There is a moment where I believe our hearts will have a moment of conversion, of realization that our old ways lead to nothing but pain and suffering. I think that that we do need to be restored, that we together need to join hands to be guided on the path that brings life and healing to all corners of the world where there is injustice so together we can blot out the evils of this world. Then maybe at the end of the day when our hard work is done we will rest in a field of peace letting the glory of God wash over us, enabling the words of the psalmist to be fulfilled, “Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.”

If we looked back through the annals of history, we would find countless women and men who have committed their lives to make the world a better place. If we look around us, we will find that here in this community those have committed their lives to bring justice, peace, and restoration to those who need a helping hand. The thing that we need to remember about our relationship with God is that it is a two-way street… We cannot ask God for restoration, for aide, if we are not willing to contribute to the restorative justice that Christ calls us to participate in. I don’t think that William Paton Mackay knew what the world would be like, but I believe that his words are relevant and a powerful reminder to us that as we have received God’s love, and how we are called to be emissaries of God’s love as well,  Revive us again - fill each heart with thy love; May each soul be rekindled with fire from above.

As we continue on in our Lenten journey, we have an opportunity to cleanse ourselves of the things that keep us from authentically coming before God. I know that I have challenged you to think about giving this Season of Lent, but I also want to emphasize that this is still a time for us to let things go and to give up things that do not benefit our participation in the building of a community that is founded on love, peace, and compassion. My soul is tired, it is weary, it is weighed down by grief and in need of restoration and revitalization… I fear for the day when I turn on the television and no longer feel a sense of pain or sorrow when there is a report of another attack and loss of innocent lives. We are in a unique time and place, each of us here has been called to play their part, to speak up for the unspoken, to love the unloved, to tear down walls in places where they have been erected, and to make God’s Kingdom a place of genuine human affection.

God is in the present here with us, wanting to restore and energize our souls… God is here with us in the places where people hurting and shares the pain with them. In our desire to allow God to start a new thing in us, are we willing to share in those places of hurt as well? Because it is there in those places where our hands get dirty, and our brows get sweaty, where the work of restoration begins. I know I’ve said it before, but I’ll repeat it, you can literally look around and see evidence of the work that has already been done here in this place and in this community. And we can do more if we are willing to be bold and take action, not just speaking words of kindness, because then we will be able to touch people’s hearts with a much higher passion and sincerity. “O Lord God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved,” friends may we pray for the day when we can let the glory of God shine on our faces together and for the day when the bread and cup of tears turn into a bountiful banquet of joy and celebration for all. Amen.



Songs of Faith (Pt. 1): Amazing Grace

John 9:24-34 (New Revised Standard Version)

So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, “Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.” He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?” Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out.

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This morning we kick off the first Sunday in Lent by diving into a mini-series titled, "Songs of Faith," that uses hymns you submitted. The first of these hymns that we will look at is "Amazing Grace," which was written by John Newton...

John Newton, who was an English poet and Anglican clergyman, penned the words to this beloved hymned in 1779. For being such a well-known hymn, you would think that John Newton was a deeply religious man, but he really didn't come to grasps with his faith until later in his adult life. Newton had been conscripted into the Royal Navy, and after leaving the service, he found work in the growing Atlantic slave trade. It was during one of his voyages that a violent storm battered his ship, and it caused such tremendous damage that it led Newton to cry out to God asking for mercy. Newton would remain in the slave trade for a few more years until he left to study theology and later work as one of England's most well-known abolitionist. The words, "I was blind, but now I see," held new meaning for Newton, who considered himself a lost soul during his years as a slave trader.

Grace allows our eyes to be opened to new possibilities… Grace allows us to see beyond the chaos, beyond uncertainty, hate, and anger and lets us catch a glimpse of what it means to live in the Kingdom of God. This is the grace that carried John Newton to the point in his life where he heard the call of God. This is the grace that the blind man felt when Jesus restored his sight. This is the grace we are called to embrace and share with those around us because this grace is liberating, this grace is what gives us strength, this is the grace that enables us to go on day after day after day. This is the grace that feeds our souls.

As much as we need to seek out the grace that feeds our souls, we also need to be aware of the things that we consume, that prevent us from obtaining the grace that is liberating and freeing… Because there are things that get in the way of grace, the grace that we receive and the grace that we give as well. So what are the many dangers, toils, and snares for you in your life? What are the things that keep you from being in the presence of the amazing grace that flows from the throne of God? It can be bitterness… It can be anger that things didn't go the way you wanted them to… It can be a grudge that we refuse to let go of, it can be a longing for a time that has long since come and gone.  These are just some of the many dangers, toils, and snares that we need to overcome to be in a state of being where we can connect fully with the love and grace that comes from God.

At the beginning of this section of the Gospel of John, we find Jesus crossing paths with the man who was blind. And there were those, who like us, blamed the man for his own suffering. But once again, we find that Jesus breaks our expectations, our understanding of how the world works. After hearing the words of those who were standing around Jesus said that no one can be blamed for the man's blindness and he adds that the man in front of them had been born blind "so that God's works might be revealed in him." If we aren't careful, we'll end up on the side that blames others for things that are out of our control. If we aren't careful, we'll find that instead of being on the side of righteousness, we'll be on the side of self-indignation. Grace will catch us by surprised whenever Jesus is involved, because grace is extended in ways that go beyond our sense of what is right and wrong, what is just, and unjust.  

The man who was healed in this morning's reading had his sight restored after Jesus had spit into some mud and rubbed it on the man's eyes. And after his sight is restored, he walks around, and people don't recognize him at first… Some people ask if this was the same man who begged outside, to which the formerly blind man replied, "Yep, I'm that man." And that brings us to the reading today where this man who was healed was being interrogated by the Pharisees. But the man who was healed by Jesus didn't get swept up into their speculation about theology and politics. All this man knew is that Jesus restored his sight and that all he could say was, "One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see." This is the kind of grace that God offers, but it's also the kind of grace we wrestle with as we know that we are only human beings who have a complicated relationship with grace as people who want to receive it freely but give it stingily.

This is something that we struggle with… As much as we may rationally, in our heads, know that we need to let go of the things that get in the way of grace, we have a habit of clinging onto hurts, onto feelings of anger, and we refuse to let go of these things even though we know they need to be cast away in order for us to be free. This is what caught the Pharisees off guard as they talked with the man whom Jesus healed. They couldn't get over the thought of a someone who they thought was a sinner being reconciled… They couldn't get over the idea that God speaks to us in different ways… They were so caught up in their own self-image that they refused to hear the words of grace, the words of compassion and love, that came from the blind man's testimony and the retelling of his encounter with Jesus. Just like the Pharisees we too are guilty of refusing to hear the story of amazing grace, because it doesn't fit our mold, it doesn't conform to what we want, and so, in the end, we end up feeling nothing but frustrated and angry.

When we reach the point of feeling like we can't feel the grace of God, because of the hurdles of life that keep getting in our way, I can't help but think of the rest of that verse that John Newton penned, Through many dangers, toils, and snares I have already come. T'was grace that brought me safe thus far and grace will lead us home. We've all be in place of the Pharisees who refused to acknowledge the grace of God, and we have all been in the place of the blind man who needed grace, and as we have walked through life experiencing both of these things we can find solace and comfort in the fact that whether we know it or not, God's grace is the thing that brings us to where it is we need to be. Through all of the dangers of life, grace is there, through all of the toils, grace is there, through all of the snares, grace is there to set us back on the path we need to be on and allow us to see God working in the world around us.

In the reading for today, we are challenged to look for how the hand of God is working our lives.  All you have to do is listen again to the testimony of the man who was once blind, "One thing I know, I was blind, but now I see." This is what scared the Pharisees and what scares us because when God gets involved, we are no longer in control, and for that reason, there was a price to pay. For those of us who refuse to welcome in the grace of God that opens our eyes, we will find that we are poorer for it. When we turn our backs on love and compassion, when we hold onto bitterness and petty grudges, we will find that our spirits are not as filled as they could have been. The price of not paying attention to the grace-filled work of God is pretty high.

During this Season of Lent, perhaps we should try to set aside some time to allow our hearts to get attuned with the movement of God in the world around us. Grace may be the catalyst that nourishes the ground that makes way for new and good things to grow within your soul. It may be grace that gives you permission to work through the tougher things in life and ask hard questions of God and of yourself, it may be grace that allows you to let go of the things that weigh you down and allows you to see a future filled with possibilities when you allow the Spirit of God to be your guide. When we allow ourselves to be filled with that kind of grace new opportunities are opened, and what we thought was chaos, uncertainty, turns out to be a blank canvas that is ready to be filled with a modern telling of God's creation.

In the end, I think all we can do is look back on our journey and our relationship with God's grace as something that is always evolving, always changing. Today we may not have mastered grace, but tomorrow is another opportunity to live into the plans that God has set before us. Are you, are we, willing to surrender ourselves to the grace of God that is life altering? Grace that as John Newton wrote, Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved; how precious did that grace appear the hour I first believed! That is the kind of grace that pushes us, that challenges us to see God's hands at work around us. We stand in the footsteps of the Pharisees who doubted, and we stand in the steps of the man who was healed by Christ. All of these things together are what bind up this beautifully complex thing we call faith, and it is all these things that allow us to be in the presence of God's amazing grace.