This was the sermon/message that I presented at Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church (Putnam Valley, NY) for the 21st Sunday after Pentecost, October 13, 2002. The Scriptures were Exodus 32: 1 – 14, Philippians 4: 1 – 9, and Matthew 22: 1 – 14.
There are a number of hymns that we sing that interest me. Some I like for what they say, some for the source of the hymn and others for the reason they were written or who wrote them.
For example, the most prolific hymn writer in our hymnal, besides the Wesley family, is probably Fanny Crosby. Over 1000 hymns Christians sing today were written by Fanny Crosby. She was born in 1820 and died in 1915, living most of her life in the New York area. And from the sixth week of her life, she was blind. The notes that accompany the United Methodist Hymnal point out that she spent most of her adult life working with other blind people and, of course, writing those wonderful hymns that we turn to in times of trouble and in times of joy. It was her faith in Jesus that gave Fanny Crosby the vision needed to write such powerful songs as “Blessed Assurance” (UMH 369). Through her songs, she showed the triumph of spirit over adversity.
My favorite writer, though, has to be John Newton. Newton’s signature hymn is “Amazing Grace”. It happens that I, like countless others, also like the hymn. I like it for the tune because the tune comes from Virginia Harmony and is representative of classical American folk hymns. I came to know this hymn before I knew the reasons why it was written and I appreciated it more after I knew why.
Like so many of his time, John Newton went to sea as a young man, serving in the English navy and then on commercial ships. Ultimately he rose through the ranks to become a ship’s captain and owner. And as the captain and owner of a ship when sea power was the source of wealth and power, he enjoyed the riches that such a position commanded. But his ship was a slave ship, running the triangle route of slaves to America, rum from America to England, and goods back to Africa to trade for slaves, and his wealth was tied to the slave trade of the early 18th century.
But one day, during a storm much like the one that tested John Wesley’s faith, John Newton faced the conflict and dilemma that existed between his work and his soul. We hear that crisis of life in the first words of his bibliographical hymn, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.” (UMH 378)
When Arlo Guthrie sings this song, he dramatizes the event and suggests that Newton immediately changed the course of his boat and freed his cargo. I am not sure that it was all that dramatic but we do know that he changed his life and worked against the slave trade, choosing to follow and to work for God rather that collect the riches that society would have allowed him to gain.
When we speak of those who choose to follow God, we are reminded of the twelve disciples, each of whom was asked to follow Jesus without any knowledge of what the life would be like or what the gains would be.
We are like Newton or the disciples or any number of people given the opportunity to follow the path laid down before us by God. That is what the parable Jesus told in the Gospel reading for today is all about.
There is a great wedding, one so large and of so much importance that the invitations were sent out months in advance. And now with the time of the wedding present, the king sends out messengers to let the invitees know now is the time. But when the invitees receive this final notice they reply that they are too busy and don’t have the time to come to this important event in their lives. Rebuffed, the king sends out additional messengers to invite those who ordinarily would not receive invitations to such a prestigious ceremony.
And this second group of individuals come and come prepared, as one would expect. All that is but one individual. And though he knew of the invitation and the reason for the invitation, he chooses not to prepare. So he was thrown out of the wedding.
Read if you will this story again but make the people of Israel and those who know God as the first group of invitees. They knew God was planning a great event, yet they turned their back on Him. The second group would be the Gentiles, who in the early mission of the church would only get second consideration to such events. But having been on the outside of society so long, they welcomed the opportunity to be invited and took advantage. All but one, for even those who get a second chance must still show respect to God.
More than once the people of Israel heard the call of God and more than once they have ignored it. We read in the Old Testament reading how they Israelites quickly returned to their old ways when Moses went to the mountain to receive the Ten Commandments. Though they should have been preparing for Moses’ return, they quickly fell back into the routines of a life without God, seeking comfort in that which could not provide comfort.
It is only because Moses goes before God and pleads for God to forgive His chosen people that God recants on his vow to destroy his people. How many times do we read in the Old Testament of the people leaving the protection of God only to have a prophet ask God to forgive them? And how many times do we read that God did just that?
Not always, of course, for there are countless time when God has been content to let the people suffer the consequences of their own actions. But no matter what happens, God never forgets his people and they come back better.
Perhaps that is how we should see the world around us today. We hear some religious leaders talk of America being punished by God for their wayward actions, though I don’t think that is the case. That which has been wrought on us today is as much a fault of our own arrogance and ignorance of others as it is the anger and hatred that has been built against us by those in envy of what freedom is all about.
But our fight against such evil is not evil but the use of good works. If we choose to fight evil in kind, we can never expect to win; for all it will do is breed more evil. But if we choose to follow and present a message of peace, justice, and righteousness; if we choose to follow Jesus, then we can truly expect the triumph of good over evil, of peace and freedom over slavery and death.
And like the Israelites before us, we are given the choice of what we shall do. We are asked, like Paul asked the people of the church in Philippi, to work together. We do not know what is going on but from the way Paul writes the letter, whatever the problem is, the problem is set to bring down that church. Paul reminds and encourages those there to rejoice. This joy is not based on agreeable circumstances but rather on their relationship with God. We are going to face troubles in this world but we can rejoice because God is using those troubles to improve our character, to strengthen us.
But it also requires, as Paul encouraged that congregation to do, that we work together. We cannot work against each other and expect to triumph. God will not work in a situation where people work against each other but God will be there through the Holy Spirit to see the final triumph.
There is one other hymn that I like, “Here I Am” (UMH 593). I like it for a number of reasons, partially because it strikes so close to home. In Isaiah 6: 8 the prophet wrote,
I heard the voice of the Lord, saying: “Whom shall I send, and who will go for Us?”
Then I said, “Here I am! Send me.” (Isaiah 6: 8)
We have been called to the great feast, the great wedding of the Gospel story today. We come to the communion table this morning knowing that Jesus was sent to this world to stand before God and plead our case for us. We come to the communion table this morning knowing that through Jesus Christ our sins are forgiven and we are empowered to go forth. We have been given the keys to final victory, to see the triumph of peace, justice, and righteousness over evil and the oppression of the poor. The call is very clear but the question asked to day is who will answer the call.