Amazing Grace - Notes - Saint Albans

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Amazing Grace

Saint Albans
Published by in Sermon ·
This morning I confess to feeling a little trepidation.
You see, while preparing this message I’ve been reading a couple of texts.
The first is from a delightful little book called A Month in the Country.
(I’m indebted to our friend Ralph for putting me on to it.)
It’s a story about a London art restorer who spends a month in a Yorkshire county parish - repairing a fresco, and in the process he rubs shoulders with the locals.
Listen to him portray the preacher…
“Climbing the stairs to the pulpit transformed him. He started out mild enough. But once launched upon the waves and billows of his sermon, he roared and raved like a madman, accusing the congregation of being sinners – and bashing down his fist on the podium so hard that the water decanter leapt and spilt over. Mercifully, once down at ground level again, he came-to like one revived from a convulsive fit”.

Well, that goes some way in explaining my trepidation!
At least, be consoled that there’s no water decanter up here!
However, the trepidation is compounded by the fact that the lectionary has thrown me a curved-ball.
My second and of course major text is our reading from John’s Gospel.
It starts with good news, exceedingly good news. “God so loved the world...”
But did you notice, it’s not long before John tosses a fly into the ointment? He deems it necessary to raise the subject of sin.
Oh, he doesn’t actually use the “S” word, but there’s no hiding what he’s on about…
“People” he says “have loved darkness rather than light”.

Of course, it’s no coincidence that those responsible for compiling the lectionary were inclined to choose a passage such as this for this the fourth Sunday in Lent.
Lent is precisely the time when the church does talk about sin and darkness…
But for the preacher such talk can create a sense of unease...
I mean, who wants to mirror the sour vicar from Yorkshire?
At best a silly old duffer - out of touch with the modern world, or worse still - a self-righteous prig, most happy when poking the borax at others.

Disparaging, derogatory and disapproving denouncements serve little good.
Last week’s study group heard how some of us grew up being told that we were “not good enough”.
And sometimes that message was delivered by Church leaders and others in authority acting more like God’s little Taliban, than representatives of Jesus.
However, in our aversion toward stuffed-shirt judgmentalism, the temptation is to go in the opposite direction - and refuse to call sin by its proper name.
We choke on the word, find it hard to pronounce.
Such is the discomfort it provokes, we stop using it altogether.  
We find substitutes to describe it such as disease, maladjustment, neurosis, deficiency, criminality, addiction, moral lapse.

Episcopalian Priest Barbra Brown-Taylor sounds a caution.
"Abandoning the language of sin will not make sin go away” she says. “We will continue to experience deformation, damnation and death no matter what we call them. Abandoning the language will simply leave us speechless before them, and will increase our denial of their presence in our lives.”
“Speechless… increase our denial of their presence in our lives”

So on one hand, railing judgement.
On the other hand, blind denial.
Neither treating the subject with the seriousness it deserves.

So let’s work together this morning, trying to be faithful to the Biblical text, and at the same time sensitive to the pastoral implications.

This being the fourth Sunday in Lent, it’s understandable if some of us are getting a little worn down with all this darkness.
“Fred,” you say, “there’s more in our gospel reading this morning than darkness and death… it also talks about light and life as well!
It tells us that ‘light has come into the world’…. And includes my favourite Bible verse – John 3:16:
God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him may not be lost, but may have eternal life”.

You’re absolutely right – it does!
The passage before us this morning contains a truthful tension…
God loves the world… (yet) the world loves darkness.
Lent is the time when the church talks about darkness…
Yet it’s equally true that Lent is the time when we throw the switch of the strong light of God’s love.
It won’t do for us to ignore either.

Barbra Brown Taylor not only warns that removing sin from our dictionary causes denial, but that it also weakens the language of grace.
“The full impact of forgiveness,” she says, cannot be felt apart from the full impact of what has been forgiven.”
We might paraphrase her… The full impact of the light cannot be felt apart from the full impact of darkness.

Here’s the paradox.
The Gospel’s insistence that we face honestly the reality, complexity and perversity of the darkness ends up being the very means by which we receive the light.

The darkness must be faced if we are to be fully impacted by the light!

Now I don’t prepend to know much about music – particularly classical music, but I’m reliably informed that often composers set sombre, heavy refrains alongside joyous, rapturous tunes.
One writer tells me that Bach’s unique contribution to church worship is in the way he frequently combines passages of deepest anguish with jubilant joy, moving back and forth, back and forth between heart-wrenching lamentation and exuberant life-affirming dance.
At the conclusion of the Mass today Jenny is going to play just such a piece.
If you’re able to stay, listen to how the despair of the darkness only serves to highlight the joy of the dance.

Another Illustration comes from the world of art.
The Renaissance saw the development of a painting technique called Chiaroscuro (key-aros-kuro) - which literally means “light-dark”.
It refers to the strong contrast between light and dark used by the artist, with intensely powerful and dramatic results.
This detail from a Caravaggio painting illustrates just this.
It’s the depth of darkness, the heaviness of the shadow, that
gives such life and vitality to the figures.

I’ve conducted a good number of funerals in my time, and the one hymn that’s top of the chart is… you guessed it, Amazing Grace.
I noticed something. Some well meaning but theologically ill-informed funeral director has made an amendment…
Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved (and here it is!) one such as me.

Now hold on a minute! Doesn’t the hymn book say “That saved a wretch like me”? Indeed it does!

Most of us will know that John Newton, author of the hymn, had been a notorious blasphemer, an unruly shipman, and a trafficker in African slaves.
His conversion demonstrated Christ’s reach to the most wretched of people.
Newton discovered something the funeral director missed… the thing that makes grace so amazing is precisely that it saved a wretch… a sinner… one who was dwelling in darkness.
Listen to how Newton himself described it.  
"I am a great sinner, but Christ is a great Saviour."

Problem is – to contemporary ears Newton sounds so eighteenth century.
Ask Mr Funeral Director – he’ll tell ya! In our self-promoting, self-esteem culture, confession of sin doesn’t sell… we really do prefer to hide in our darkness.  

A few years back Sony Pictures was the subject of a cyber attack.
Hackers broke into their computer system and made public not just movies that hadn’t been released, but private emails as well.
In one of her emails, the head of Sony Pictures, one of Hollywood’s most powerful women, had made racist remarks about President Obama.
When these remarks became public, she apologised.
“My comments,” she said, “were insensitive and inappropriate, but they are not an accurate reflection of who I am.”
Don’t you love it?  
What I say in private, my inner thoughts, my hidden prejudices…
Well… they aren’t really me…
They don’t accurately reflect who I really am…
I’m really much nicer than that!

But strip off the mask of nice person me, wash off the stage make-up, and there exposed is the grinning death’s head of sin.

Our lives are played on a stage of fabricated scenery and cardboard props.
Lent is an invitation to rip down the back-drop, to allow the spotlight to shine down and expose the dark, dank brick wall that stands behind the facade.
The good news, the exceedingly good news today is that God loves the world.
He loves it with such wild enthusiasm that he utterly refuses to let the darkness stifle the light of Christ.
The light shines in the darkness, - our darkness.
And thank God, it’s that light that will finally bring us home.
And people – that really is something worth spilling the water decanter over!

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