Sermon 2009-03-8

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Sermon:  March 8, 2009 (Pastor Lise Sparrow)

          Two Sundays ago when I was worshipping with our group in St Croix I lifted the hymnal to find the first hymn and was taken aback when I saw the name of their hymnal. Church members here know our history book is called SAFE THUS FAR and their Hymnal in that far away place was called something just abit different…This Far By Faith.

            In our epistle today we hear this same echo with regard to Abraham..

No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.

        Today I am continuing on a bit with the lessons we learned in St Croix as we visited not only a beautiful island and painted and repaired buildings which will serve children but what we learned from seeing slave fortresses and dungeons, of seeing the vestiges of the sugar cane fields where slaves had labored for their masters and where we saw faces of people who clearly carried the blood of both servant and slave.   

I hope many of you will come see with your eyes and hear with your ears and share food with the group next Sunday but for today I want to share with you the significance  in our scripture in our church and in our lives of a few stories of faith as they relate to St Croix.

            They are also stories of people who God called to break through habit and convention to see the world in new ways and to lead humanity forward into righteousness.

           The first is the story of John Newton, a British man who was a trafficker of thousands of slaves until one night in 1748 a storm struck his ship.  As the ship rocked and tumbled he began to pray and he has written that he for the first time could feel there was a God who listened and responded in the dark of night.

Newton was never the same.  Christ became real to him as someone who had been through the darkest of nights and seen the worst of humanity and was saved nonetheless.  His faith grew and in 1772 he wrote a song about faith entitled “Faith and Expectation” which we now know as “Amazing Grace”.   That song, inspired by the darkest of nights and the most desperate of faith, has been the most popular song in history.

It was sung by soldiers on both sides of the Civil War. It was sung at the Requiem for the Cherokee Indians after the trail of Tears,  it was sung when the Berlin Wall crumbled, it was sung when Nelson Mandela was freed from prison and on September 11 to lift the hearts of the hopeless and it was sung as the saints returned to the Superdome after Hurricane Katrina had destroyed the lives of thousands. It was sung for us when we visited a small village in Kenya and we have sung it to our loved ones when they are grieving the loss of loved ones right here in this church.

But Newton didn’t stop at a song or with preaching but rather he worked with William Wilberforce to make the slave trade illegal so that, after his death, John Quincy Adams would have legal ground to stand on when he went before the Supreme Court to fight for the rights of slaves who had claimed their own freedom.

John Quincy Adams was the end of the Amistad story however. It began when Spanish traders bought 54 slaves off the coast of Havana among them a Sierra Leonian man, named Sengpe Pieh—given the Spanish name Cinque- taken from his wife and children.  This man led a mutiny on the ship believing their lives were at stake—killing the captain and capturing another who ultimately steered them to Long Island where they were imprisoned.

        A Congregationalist, Lewis Tappan, one of our forbears, along with others from the church committed to abolition, then took up their cause, paid for their release and trial, protected them until the day 168 years ago tomorrow, when they were set free, and then paid for their return trip home. On the day of the Court’s decision, John Quincy Adams penned a letter to Lewis Tappan.  “The captives are free!” Adams wrote.  “Thanks! in the name of humanity and justice, to you.”

        When God came to Abraham, it was late in life in fact the scripture says He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead” but rather he took up his staff and produced the first son of a nation. And in the story his names and the name of Sara is changed but not only that a new name of God I given.  Abram is no longer “father –a respected elder but Abraham” father of a nation and God is now given the name of El Shaddai—the Almighty—achiever of amazing things.

        Today in the lectionary we face the very crux-  the cross- and the crossroads of Christ’s journey to Easter.   Jesus begins saying aloud to his disciples the truth of what he knows will be the end of his earthly journey---death and resurrection.

        Like many of us who shy away from what we call the crucifix- the vision of Christ’s body hung on the cross---the disciples did not want to hear about the hard part, the suffering and death. They were enamored with Christ’s healings and his fresh vision of faith and the scriptures. They loved his charismatic presence and the thought that their oppression as virtual and actual slaves to the Romans might be lifted once everyone realized he was the Messiah.  For it had just come down to that.  He had just admitted it and then, lo and behold, a day later he was talking of persecution and death and even Peter, his right hand man would hear none of it.

 The gospel says:

        Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, "Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things."

It is hard and it means turning our backs on the habits of our humanity, to stop doing what is easy and what has been done before but rather to look with fresh eyes on ourselves and each other.   To take the long view for the sake of our children and humanity rather than the path of comfort and escape.

Langston Hughes wrote:

Freedoms Plow

by Langston Hughes

When a man starts out with nothing,

When a man starts out with his hands

Empty, but clean,

When a man starts to build a world,

He starts first with himself

And the faith that is in his heart-

The strength there,

The will there to build.


First in the heart is the dream-

Then the mind starts seeking a way.

His eyes look out on the world,

On the great wooded world,

On the rich soil of the world,

On the rivers of the world.

The eyes see there materials for building,

See the difficulties, too, and the obstacles.

The mind seeks a way to overcome these obstacles.

The hand seeks tools to cut the wood,

To till the soil, and harness the power of the waters.

Then the hand seeks other hands to help,

A community of hands to help-

Thus the dream becomes not one man's dream alone,

But a community dream.

Not my dream alone, but our dream.

Not my world alone,

But your world and my world,

Belonging to all the hands who build.

        Churches are that community --and the dream of Christ must live in those churches and in our hearts. So too we must claim the crucifixion and the desperation of humanity as our cross to bear for we are called by Christ away from habit and comfort to look at our hearts and sweep them free of fear, to look at our lives and stand tall, to work together with those who have gone before.  

The meaning of Amistad in English means “Friendship” and we must claim its deepest meaning that here in these pews, on these streets and as hands reaching across the seas to St Croix and even Africa we become the truest of friends.

         African slaves occasionally revolted against their masters, and the result was usually severe punishment for the slaves. The mutiny of fifty-four slaves on the Spanish ship Amistad in 1839 proved an exception, however, as the U.S. Supreme Court granted the slaves their freedom and allowed them to return to Africa.

         The fifty-four Africans were KIDNAPPED in West Africa, near modern-day Sierra Leone, and illegally sold into the Spanish slave trade. They were transported to Cuba, fraudulently classified as native Cuban slaves, and sold to two Spaniards. The slaves were then loaded on the schooner Amistad, which set sail for Haiti.

        Three days into the journey, the slaves mutinied. Led by Sengbe Pieh, known to the Spanish crew as Cinque, the slaves unshackled themselves, killed the captain and the cook, and forced all but two of the crew to leave the ship. The Africans demanded to be returned to their homeland, but the crew tricked them and sailed toward the United States. In August 1839 the ship was towed into Montauk Point, Long Island, in New York.

       John Newton, the author of the lyrics to Amazing Grace, was born in 1725 in Wapping, London, United Kingdom. Despite the powerful message of "Amazing Grace," Newton's religious beliefs initially lacked conviction; his youth was marked by religious confusion and a lack of moral self-control and discipline.

      After a brief time in the Royal Navy, Newton began his career in slave trading. The turning point in Newton's spiritual life was a violent storm that occurred one night while at sea. Moments after he left the deck, the crewman who had taken his place was swept overboard. Although he manned the vessel for the remainder of the tempest, he later commented that, throughout the tumult, he realized his helplessness and concluded that only the grace of God could save him. Prodded by what he had read in Thomas à Kempis' Imitation of Christ, Newton took the first step toward accepting faith.

      These incidents and his 1750 marriage to Mary Catlett changed Newton significantly. On his slave voyages, he encouraged the sailors under his charge to pray. He also began to ensure that every member of his crew treated their human cargo with gentleness and concern. Nevertheless, it would be another 40 years until Newton openly challenged the trafficking of slaves.

      Some three years after his marriage, Newton suffered a stroke that prevented him from returning to sea; in time, he interpreted this as another step in his spiritual voyage. He assumed a post in the Customs Office in the port of Liverpool and began to explore Christianity more fully. As Newton attempted to experience all the various expressions of Christianity, it became clear that he was being called to the ministry. Since Newton lacked a university degree, he could not be ordained through normal channels. However, the landlord of the parish at Olney was so impressed with the letters Newton had written about his conversion that he offered the church to Newton; he was ordained in June 1764.

      In Olney, the new curate met the poetWilliam Cowper, also a newly-born Christian. Their friendship led to a spiritual collaboration that completed the inspiration for "Amazing Grace," the poem Newton most likely wrote in Kineton, Warwickshire around Christmas 1772. The lyrics are based on his reflections on an Old Testament text he was preparing to preach on, adding his perspective about his own conversion while on his slave ship, the Greyhound, in 1748.

      Newton's lyrics have become a favourite for Christians, largely because the hymn vividly and briefly sums up the doctrine of divine grace. The lyrics are based on 1 Chronicles 17:16-17, a prayer of King David in which he marvels at God's choosing him and his house. Newton apparently wrote this for use in a sermon he preached on this passage on New Year's Day 1773, and for which he left his sermon notes, which correspond to the flow of the lyrics. (He entitled the piece "Faith's review and expectation.")

      The song has also become known as a favorite with supporters of freedom and human rights, both Christian and non-Christian, in part because many assume it to be Newton's testimony about his slave trading past.

      The hymn was quite popular on both sides in the American Civil War.

      The film begins with Wilberforce severely ill and taking a holiday in Bath, Somerset, with his cousin, Henry Thornton. It is here that he is introduced to his future wife, Barbara Spooner. Although he at first resists, she convinces him to tell her about his life. The story flashes back 15 years to 1782, and William recounts the events that led him to where he is now. Beginning as an ambitious and popular Member of Parliament (MP), William was persuaded by his friends William Pitt, Thomas Clarkson, Hannah More and others to take on the dangerous issue of the British slave trade which led him to become highly unpopular in the House of Commons amongst the Members of Parliament representing vested interests of the trade in the cities of London, Bristol and Liverpool.

        Exhausted, and frustrated that he was unable to change anything in the government, William becomes physically ill (the diagnosis in the film is colitis, most commonly known today as Crohn's disease), which brings the story back to the present day. Having virtually given up hope, William considers leaving politics forever. Barbara convinces him to keep fighting because if he does not, no one else is capable of doing so. A few days afterward, William and Barbara marry; and William, with a renewed hope for success, picks up the fight where he had previously left off, aided by Thornton, Clarkson and James Stephen. In time, after many attempts to bring legislation forward over twenty years, he is eventually responsible for a bill being passed through Parliament in 1807, which abolishes the slave trade in the British empire forever.