April 24, 2016

A Community of Grace

Service Type:

The standard of decorum that you are used to from this pulpit will not be met today. My apologies.

A Community of Grace.

Lets begin our discussion with ‘community’ – what, exactly does that mean?
Webster: “a GROUP of PEOPLE who live in the same area
A group of people who have the same interests [as in a church]
A group of nations of people”

In all three descriptions the same two words are used: Group and People.
Here in Unionville I believe that we can relate on all three levels to this description: Central United Church is a community – we sometimes call our selves a family, as in ‘a Christian family’. We are a community that is knit together in a common belief in the gospel and the love that it represents.

We are a community of people who live within a certain geography: Unionville was so named as the half-way point between Markham and Thornhill, back in the day.

And we live in, what is referred to, as the culturally most diverse city in Canada: Markham. Our ethnic diversity is part of what defines Markham as a community.

And what of GRACE? What is that exactly?
Ahh.. well that is where the discussion gets interesting.

1 a way of moving that is smooth and attractive [Grace Kelly?]
2. a controlled, polite and pleasant way of behaving [our social gathering after each service, in the narthex, is a moment of grace… ‘How are you?” “ how is your family?” are you enjoying your new job/retirement or your recent knee replacement?” ……

Of greater significance to our discussion this morning is what Webster refers to as the ‘Full Description of GRACE….
….. unmerited divine assistance given humans for their regeneration or sanctification.
…. A virtue coming from God
…. A state of sanctification enjoyed through divine grace.

Now, we are much closer to the mark…. Grace is perhaps best understood when we study the hymn that we all know so well, Amazing Grace.
Today, the most sung hymn in the Christian world.
It has been estimated that Amazing Grace is sung or played on an instrument over 10 million times a year. [assuming that bag pipes are an instrument].
Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound.
That saved a wretch like me.

I have found the background of this hymn illuminating. Allow me to share some of it with you.

Amazing Grace was written in 1773 by John Newton, an Englishman.

I first heard this story while travelling in Ireland 3 years ago, as a guest of the Irish Tourism Board. We were visiting the great gardens of Southern Ireland, driving between locales when our host broke in with this story, “You know that John Newton was piloting a slave ship in 1748 when they hit a huge storm. When the ship hit rocks off the north of Ireland Mr. Newton saw the light, and now, being transformed allowed the slaves to go free.
With a new appreciation for the gift of life and the power of a gracious God he wrote the words to Amazing Grace.”
The rest, you could say, is history.


Except that is not the real story.

Background [pre “Amazing Grace”]:

John Newton was born in 1725 and was a spirited individualist, to be sure. His father was a merchant mariner, who introduced John to life at sea while he was a young man of 11 when he served as an apprentice seaman on his fathers ship. This was the beginning of a long personal journey that took place until his retirement at the age of about 37.

Johns life experience, pre ‘GRACE’, was difficult. Born to a mother with aspirations that he would join the clergy, these dreams were shattered when she died while he was six years old.
A stern step mother, lacking in character, did little to provide a positive influence. He was shipped off to boarding school where he was abused, while his father sailed in the British merchant navy.

When John joined his father aboard his ship at age 11, he was introduced to ‘life at sea’ and all of its saltiness. While he learned new words of the 4 letter kind he developed his natural ability to express himself using the English language with flourish and skill.

After adopting life at sea in the slave trade, the captain of one of Newton’s ships wrote, “When he has run out of swear words he makes them up. He is insubordinate and totally lacking in respect for authority.” Which lead to his imprisonment while on board and eventually, HIS enslavement while stationed in Sierra Leone in Western Africa. There he laboured with African slaves, often while in chains.

Upon hearing of his sons situation his father sent for him and was able to rescue John from the clutches of the slave traders. Home once again, Newton fell in love with the daughter of family friends, Polly Catlett. And he returned to the slave trade.
In October 1748 the slave ship for which John was responsible indeed hit a violent storm, battered his vessel off the coast of County Donegal, Ireland, so severely that he called out to God for mercy, a moment [according to his biographer] that marked his conversion. Two weeks later his ailing ship hit a rock off shore and he released the slaves.

A conversion took place, we know for sure. But he continued to support the slave trade and sponsored 8 more slave ships over the next 7 years, when he began his study of Christian Theology.

Let’s pause for a moment:
Why did it take John 7 years to complete his conversion, take up studies to join the clergy and marry his love, Polly?
According to his official biography, the answer is in the question: it took him 7 years to complete his conversion AND to become an advocate for the abolition of slavery because it took that long for Polly to convince him that the slave trade was evil.

Can you imagine the conversations that they must have had?

Newtons’ life journey took a right turn when his ship was hit by a storm.  And that trajectory was intensified by the love of his life. Through Polly his eyes were opened to the love of Christ and the truth of the gospel message. And slavery had no place there.

For a community to achieve a measure of grace we need to take a journey, perhaps one much like John Newtons’.

In Luke we learn that Jesus met a man who asked, “What do I have to do to receive eternal life?”
Jesus replied “What do the scriptures say?”
“To love the Lord your God with all your strength and all of your mind and your neighbour as yourself.”
Jesus, “You are right. Do this and you will live”

YES, BUT “Who is my neighbour?”

Jesus, “There was once a man travelling from Jerusalem to Jericho, when robbers attacked him, stripped him and beat him, leaving him half dead.

It so happened that a priest walked down that road; when he saw the man, he walked on by, on the other side.
In the same way a Levite also came along, went over and looked at the man and then walked on by, on the other side.

But a Samaritan who was travelling that way came upon the man and when he saw him, his heart was filled with pity. He went over to him, poured oil and wine on his wounds and bandaged them; then he put the man on his own animal and took him to an inn, where he took care of him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper.

“Take care of him”, he told the innkeeper, ‘and when I come back this way, I will pay you whatever else you spend on him.”

I have been thinking about the modern day equivalent of the Samaritan story. I have imagined what would happen if a Christian from Canada was travelling the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. There, on the side of the road was a man, beaten, robbed and left for dead. The man, a member of ISIS. Or El Quada.

Would I pull over, nurse the man and drive him to the nearest Holiday Inn? Where I would care for him over night and provide my credit card information to the hotel clerk with instructions to charge me for any costs connected with the mans care?

I read recently where Americans claim responsibility for killing three top commanders of ISIS in recent weeks. And as I read this a quiet celebration occurred in my heart. A stroke against evil!

When I was a kid in the early 60’s, I loved to play cowboys and Indians.  In the 70’s and 80’s I graduated to Star Wars, Dirty Harry and other Hollywood block busters: good vs. evil. The game is simple.

After 9/11, when America went to war against Iraq, there was a bumper sticker sighted on a car in Washington DC. It read, “When Jesus said ‘Love your neighbour’ I don’t think he meant kill them.” There lies in that statement a question that is not so simple. What does it mean to ‘love they neighbour as yourself’? and, can we assume that loving our neighbour will bring us that much closer to God’s grace?

Indeed, I am as conflicted as many of you.

We are overpowered by media that boils down the news for us into the simplest of terms. Just like the story of John Newton, lost at sea, gives up his love of the slave trade and is converted. Inspired, he wrote Amazing Grace.

Except, now we know the rest of the story. It took him 7 years and he sponsored the enslavement of about 3,000 people in the mean time.

“I once was lost, but now I am found
Was blind but now I see
To See the light
It only took 7 years for me”

When we hold the door, allow someone to turn left in front of us even when we have the right of way, when we greet each other in the narthex each Sunday, lend a hand at the annual roast beef dinner and when we provide a thoughtful answer to a serious question from a 7 year old we are being gracious.

But these acts alone do not make us a “community of grace” in the eyes of God.

If we identify the journey to Jericho as OUR journey we will find that we don’t need to go to the middle east to experience, what I call, Samaritan moments. On our road to Jericho there is a community of 2,000 people in a place call Attawapiskat, where just 9 days ago 11 people tried to take their own life: it was all over the news.

If we open our eyes and listen, we will find these moments in our daily lives. I believe that God puts them there along with all of the wonderful moments that we can truly celebrate and the countless benign moments that seemingly don’t count for much.

God awaits our response.
And, while we don’t always need to write a cheque or volunteer our time, he does know who we are praying for and what.

A Community of Grace is one that asks the hard questions, crafts thoughtful answers and demands action: it is a journey.

And the road to Grace is riddled with pot holes.

There, along that road are signposts to guide us: I have concluded that the gospel is much wiser than USA Today or the Globe and Mail.

John Newton was a wretch: his life rudderless, a slave to life that was shallow and meaningless. What happened through his 7 year conversion was an awakening to a new life. A life of focus, meaning and purpose.

He decided to give up his life in the slave trade in order to commit his time and talents to the ministry. There he turned his natural gift with language to writing hymns and poems for his congregation in Olney, England. Amazing Grace was written to illustrate his New Years sermon in 1773.

He formed a partnership with William Wilberforce who, with a contingency of abolitionists succeeded in passing the Abolition Slavery Act in 1807, the first of it’s kind in the free world.

The ‘Changed’ John Newton: “I once was lost but now I am found”.

This fall I will return to offer some suggestions of what the guideposts on the road to grace look like.

Here is a hint: there are people in this congregation who provide wonderful examples. We can learn from them.

By asking good questions, listening and acting appropriately, grace will indeed lead us home.