Amazing Grace

Amazing Grace

Amazing Grace

1 Chronicles 17:16-24   June 2, 2019

Rev. David J. Clark

Today we begin our Composing a Faith sermon series where we look at the scripture and the personal testimonies that helped shape some of our most beloved music. Our hope is that the scriptures will come more alive and you will have deeper spiritual experiences when you hear or sing this music. But most of all over this time we want to help you think about your faith and how you can be like the great hymn composers and compose a faith that works for you.

Any musical composition needs a strong melody. The melody of the Christian Faith is grace. Amazing grace–how sweet the sound. Grace is the predominant theme of the Bible. And nothing tunes into that melody like the hymn Amazing Grace. It consistently ranks as the most popular spiritual song in American Christianity.

The composer, John Newton, wrote this as song as his spiritual autobiography and it testifies to the transformation of a life that is at the center of our faith. He was born in 1725 and his mother died when he was a young boy. As an adult this guy was bad to the bone. The song has that bit about saving a wretch like me. And that is spot on. When I say he was bad, you respond How bad was he?

He was bad. As a young man he turned away from faith. He sought to destroy it and undermine any believers who came across his path. He ridiculed, taunted and demeaned them every chance he got.

John was bad. He joined the British Navy and got kicked out for desertion.

John was bad. After doing his time for desertion he worked slave ships that ran between England and Africa. His work ethic and personal habits were horrible. He was a wild raging drunk who boasted about his depravity. It didn’t make him a good shipmate. There is an account where he fell off a ship and instead of throwing preservers to him, some crewmates threw harpoons at him.

John was bad. he earned the nickname The Great Blasphemer. Cussing is part of being a sailor. But one captain said John had the worst mouth of any he’d ever met. The captain said he’d create new curse words that “exceeded the limits of verbal debauchery.”

John was bad. How bad? He got into scrapes with mates that resulted in his being starved almost to death, imprisoned while at sea and chained like the slaves those ships carried. For a while he was punished and enslaved–forced to work on a plantation in Sierra Leone.

Eventually his dad intervenes, he gains freedom and gets back to work.

In March 1748, while aboard a slaving ship called the Greyhound he was in the North Atlantic. A violent storm came upon the ship that was so rough it swept overboard his buddy who was standing where Newton had been moments before. After hours of the crew emptying water from the ship and expecting to be capsized, Newton and another mate tied themselves to the ship’s pump to keep from being washed overboard. He said, “If this will not do, then Lord have mercy upon us!” Eventually the storm died down and he went back to his cabin, shaken by the storm but even more horrified that in his moment of need–despite all of his persecution of faith, there was something in him that acknowledged and reached out to God. Where did that come from? He wondered.

This began a conversion process that took about four years. He quit swearing on the next voyage, eventually became a captain of his own ship and gradually improved his behavior after that. He immersed himself in scripture and eventually became an ordained minister and wrote many poems and hymns including Amazing Grace. His transformation is reminiscent of the Apostle Paul in the Bible. He had persecuted Christians and then had a spiritual experience that changed his life around. Paul started churches and became the most important voice in early Christianity. He wrote half of the New Testament.

Grace. The ability to turn a life around. It is the central concept at the heart of our faith. Not obedience, not following the rules, not perfection, not right belief. Grace. The concept had to do with a gift, getting better than you deserve. It is God’s favor of unbreakable love for us. That God is merciful. It’s hard for us to conceptualize grace. We think there is a catch. Like a present–not supposed to earn it. It’s a gift. God’s love for you is simply unbreakable.

I like the old story about the man who dies and goes to heaven. St. Peter meets him at the Pearly Gates and says, “Here’s how it works. You need 100 points to make it into heaven. You tell me all the good things you’ve done, and I give you a certain number of points for each item, depending on how good it was. When you reach 100 points, you get in.”

“Okay,” the man says, “I was married to the same woman for 50 years and never cheated on her, and loved her deep in my heart.”

“That’s wonderful,” says St. Peter, “that’s worth two points!”

“Only two points?” the man says. “Well, I attended church all my life and supported its ministry with my tithes and service.”

“Terrific!” says St.Peter. “That’s certainly worth a point.”

“One point!?!! I started a soup kitchen in my city and also worked in a shelter for homeless veterans.”

“Fantastic, that’s good for two more points,” St.Peter says.

“Two points!?!!” Exasperated, the man cries, “At this rate, the only way I’ll get into heaven is by the grace of God.”

‘Bingo! Now you can come in!’ St Peter opens the gates of heaven.

Now hear this. Despite everything you may think you know about Christianity. It never has been, never will be, and is not even close to being a faith where you earn your way into heaven by good works. You don’t earn God’s favor and approval because of your good deeds. That’s not how any of this works. It’s grace. Amazing Grace. God loves you everlastingly because what’s important is not what you’ve done, but who God is. It’s not about how bad you are but about how good God is. And no matter what, God accepts you as his own. And is ready to give you heaven, on earth as in heaven. You get a spiritual presence that can help you turn your life around and bring you joy and peace in places you cannot imagine as possible. That is the faith we proclaim. Grace. Amazing grace.  

The first verse of the song talks about that transformation. Now you may not feel like a wretch, like you’ve ever been that bad–not in comparison to some people you could name. But if you are honest, there are places where you’ve made mistakes, missteps, hurt people along the way. You’ve acted smaller, less courageous than you should have. We all have our own prisons. Attitudes, behaviors, patterns that don’t serve us well that we need to break out of. This song has a quality of knowing you can break free from it.

Johnny Cash used to do concerts in prisons and he’d always sing Amazing Grace. He said for that 3 minutes while that song plays everything changes in the crowd. Something takes over. And for 3 minutes everybody is free. It frees the spirit. It reminds us of what is possible.

Several years ago Bill Moyers had a documentary on Amazing Grace. One inmate he interviewed about how important the song was in his life. He drew attention to the second verse that I’d always glossed over. “T’was grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved” by saying that the fear became immediately real to him when he realized he may never get his life in order, compounded by the loneliness and restriction in prison. That helped him turn his life over. Maybe there is some fear staring at you. Is this all there is? A need that a course correction is in order. For all who want a new and better life, there is a path and it begins with Amazing Grace.

I thought it was interesting that the scripture that inspired him to write the song wasn’t one of the dozens of conversion stories. But a line where King David asked Who am I? What is my house that you have brought me this far?”  Newton saw how God reached out to him and brought him safe this far. He speculated on that. Maybe it was to show the power of God to turn around a life. The song is our testimony that people can change. People do change. God’s grace is amazing. You can have a turn around. That situation you are worried about can have a turn around. Sometimes you just have to stop and say yes.

I might have asked for an amen right here but let your amen be singing that verse together.

Through many dangers, toils and snares,

I have already come;

‘Tis grace has brought me safe thus far,

And grace will lead me home.

You may not see yourself as a wretch, but I’m sure you can count the dangers toils and snares. Newton remembered that storm on the ship. And all the awful stuff he did. Has anyone else been through dangers? You drive the 405. Think about all the times you could have died if you were an inch this way or that. You’ve been through storms, when life was chaos. The dangers of letting negative emotions—anger, self-pity. The dangers of temptations, and wallowing around in negativity.

I know there are some folks who have been through toils. The times you fought off the temptation to just give up, not to progress. The times you struggled to make ends meet. The times you toiled to set an example, to make a difference. All the stuff that could have distracted you but you persevered. All the horrible bosses, the people who have let you down, the times you studied all night, put up with miserable people not just because it was your job but because you felt that it’s what you should do. Through all the toils you have come. Grace has brought you.

Snares. Snares of selfishness. Bad attitudes of catastrophic thinking, consumerism, envy. Behaviors, attitudes, stuff you experimented around with that could have led to a bad place, or maybe the addiction you got out of. The unhealthy stuff you can get caught up in.

Well, you must be really important to God to bring you through all of that. And look at you. You are here. By God’s grace, here you are listening, growing, finding ways to make a difference. Grace brought you to Bay Shore Church today. To know you are cared for, loved, equipped with everything you need to make a difference in this world. Because God didn’t bring you this far just for your private benefit, a treasure to keep to yourself, but to share it, pass it along, help others on their journey. Not a life turned in on itself, but one meant to shine.

Newton’s composition had six verses (printed in your insert). Our hymnal pared it to four and closes with a verse from another writer that has the same sentiment but not the same language as the original. Always meaningful to me when we sing that at a memorial service. When we’ve been there 10,000 years. Robert swells the organ and I see my loved one and I together bright shining in the sun, together again, surrounded by glory.

Over the years lots of additional verses have been composed and given it meaning and nuance. There have been dozens of different tunes associated with it. Its meter lends itself to that. You can even sing it to House of the Rising Sun and the chorus of the Eagles’ Peaceful Easy Feeling,

John Newton a former captain of a slave ship saw that grace, God’s love was not just a private affair. But it should result in us working for the freedom and betterment of all people. Newton turned into one of the most important and influential voices along with William Wilberforce to get slavery abolished in England.

This song has brought people so much hope through the years. It especially became a standard in black churches in the south because of its claiming of the promise. The Lord has promised good to me. It may look hopeless. It may be hard. But there is still God. Sill the presence. A better day ahead.

And one cool act of irony or providence is that the melody we use for Amazing Grace (there were other melodies before this one) has the feeling of a spiritual longing for freedom. It’s based on the pentatonic scale–a scale of 5 notes instead of seven note “do, ray, me…” scale we are used to. ROBERT PLAY EACH SCALE.  

Many of the African melodies and slave songs were based on minor pentatonic scales.

There is a great video by Whitley Phillips from the Gaither singers who says you can think of it as the black notes on a piano. You can play a pentatonic scale just on the black notes of a keyboard. ROBERT PLAY PENTATONIC SCALE ON BLACK NOTES

Slaves didn’t come to America with do ray me . .. They had pentatonic scale. All the spirituals you can play on the 5 black notes. Listen to these:

ROBERT PLAY on black keys: Every time I Feel the Spirit; Swing Low Sweet Chariot—possibly another spiritual and then Amazing Grace.

Phillips called Amazing Grace the white spiritual on the black notes. This song has brought people so much hope through the years. It especially became a standard in black churches in the south because of its claiming of the promise. The Lord has promised good to me. It may look hopeless. It may be hard. But there is still God. Sill the presence. A better day ahead.

John Newton’s song is like a spiritual. Whether we are black or white, rich or poor, no matter what any other distinction you can think of that divides people, we are all connected by God’s amazing grace.

Let’s sing the first verse again as a spiritual.