Monday, November 03, 2008

Amazing Grace, or why all Christians should vote

This past Thursday night, I was fortunate enough to preach at the Dartmouth Navigators Christian Fellowship's weekly meeting. The first half of my sermon told the story of the Rev. John Newton and the hymn Amazing Grace; the second half explored the theology of grace and linked it to why I believe all Christians, whether liberal or conservative, have a special obligation to vote on Tuesday. Where italicized, the lyrics to Amazing Grace were sung.


May I speak in the name of God, who is creator, liberator, and sanctifier.

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound
That sav’d a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.

Good evening. My name is Nathan Empsall. I don’t know how many folks on campus know my name, but a lot of folks, upperclassmen anyway, know me as that dude with the cowboy hat.

I want to speak at length tonight about grace, and about why I think it’s incredibly important for all American Christians to vote on Tuesday. In all fairness, I should admit my own biases – I’m an actively involved Democrat who supports the occasional Republican – but tonight’s talk has nothing to do with that. I pray that my message is the message of the Gospel, and one that will apply to libertarians and communists as much as it does Republicans and Democrats.

Some of you may already know the story of Father John Newton. Newton is remembered for three things – for his many journals and diaries, which provide most of what we know about the slave trade; for the moving hymns he wrote later in life; and for his influence on one William Wilberforce.

Newton was born in London in July of 1725. His mother died when he was seven, and even as a young child he grew bitter and angry with God over that death, and gave up on faith. His religious confusion and lack of a moral center led to an angry childhood; he was a rather rebellious sort. He was drafted into the Navy at the age of 19.

’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears reliev’d;
How precious did that grace appear,
The hour I first believ’d!

After a few years in the navy, Newton became a slave trader, kidnapping people in Sierra Leone, beating and gagging them, and stuffing them into holds like sardines, leaving them to wallow in their own feces while transporting them to America where they would be purchased like livestock by the God-fearing, patriotic colonists.

I think it’s important for all of us to keep in mind the severe injustice of British and American slavery. The American brand, ours, was not the slavery of the Bible, which usually involved prisoners of war or voluntarily indentured servants. The slavery of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries was a very different form of brutality and tyranny, based instead on kidnapping and on the stripping away of all dignity and humanity.

Newton’s crimes as a slave trader were even more cruel and shameful than most because he himself knew the pain of losing one’s freedom and dignity. As a young sailor, he had attempted to desert the Navy, and was humiliated in front of almost 400 other sailors when the captain locked him in irons, stripped him, tied him to the ship’s mast, flogged him with nearly 100 lashes, and demoted him. Once he finally did get out of the Navy, he got a job as a servant to the captain of a slave ship. Yet this captain also beat him routinely, and to be a beaten servant in the middle of the ocean isn’t much better than being an actual slave yourself. Newton later described his position aboard that ship as “an infidel and libertine, a servant of slaves in Africa.” And yet, knowing full well just what it was he was doing, he became a slave trader himself, continuing to pass that pain along to others.

Thro’ many dangers, toils and snares,
I have already come;
’Tis grace has brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.

But in 1848, he began a long conversion back to God, and to justice. Newton was sailing a slave-ship home to England when an enormous storm struck, lasting for hours. The ship began to fill with water, and sailors tied themselves to the masts to keep from being blown overboard. Newton remained at the helm, struggling with the rudder and fighting the storm every inch of the way. For the first time in years, he reached deep inside himself to pray and pray.

The storm blew over, the ship didn’t sink, and Newton picked up his Bible. By the time the ship arrived home, he was once again a Christian, and began to live at least the basics of a Christian life. He ordered his crews to begin treating the slaves humanely, but it wasn’t until 1755 that he finally gave up slave trading all together.

As Newton immersed himself deeper and deeper into his newfound Christian studies, he realized God was calling him to ministry, and in 1764 he was ordained an Anglican priest. On an interesting sidenote, he was ordained by the Bishop of Chester, who first heard of him when he was recommended by none other than William Legge, the second Earl of Dartmouth, just five years before Lord Legge would donate a large sum of money to have a little school named after him in the north woods of New England’s New Hampshire.

Word of Father Newton’s sermons spread, and his church in Olney, Buckinghamshire had to be rebuilt to fit the enormous crowds. In 1779, Newton moved to London to lead a parish there, and published his first volume of hymns. It is these hymns that the former slave-trader is most known for. At least three of them are still frequently sung today: “Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken,” “How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds,” and as you’ve probably guessed by now, “Amazing Grace” – a hymn sung today by hundreds of different artists and thousands of different congregations, to scores of different tunes.

The Lord has promis’d good to me,
His word my hope secures;
He will my shield and portion be,
As long as life endures.

Amazing Grace is the story of Newton’s conversion. It describes Newton’s pain at losing his mother; the rebellion in which he lived out his adolescence, the storm that almost took his life, and above all, the grace of God that delivered him through it all.

Backtracking a back, one of Newton’s parishioners was a man by the name of William Wilberforce. Some of you may already know Wilberforce’s story, particularly if you’ve seen the movie Amazing Grace, which for all its creative licenses is still one of my favorites. Like Newton, Wilberforce largely abandoned his faith as a young man. But, after becoming a Member of Parliament, he found it again, and became an intensely devote evangelical Anglican.

Wilberforce’s faith gave him a newfound zeal for justice; he wanted to spread Christian ethics in both private and public life. Although he worked tirelessly on any number of issues, including education reform, poverty, and animal rights, he was most known for his opposition to the slave trade. Wondering what the best path for him was, in the mid-1780s Wilberforce came to Newton and asked for advice about joining the priesthood. Fr. Newton counseled him to remain in politics, and became a staunch ally in Wilberforce’s campaign to ban the slave trade. After two decades of intense work, as chronicled by that movie Amazing Grace, Wilberforce and Newton were finally successful. The slave trade was abolished in 1806, and Newton died in 1807, his life completely reversed by, and in, God.

Yes, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease;
I shall possess, within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.

The earth shall soon dissolve like snow,
The sun forbear to shine;
But God, who call’d me here below,
Will be forever mine.

Grace is one of the most beautiful things about God, the Bible, and Christianity. We know it above all for its saving power: the grace of the cross that delivers us from our sins. But that is not the only grace God gives us. I have often likened grace to butter. Maybe you’ve gained weight and just can’t take off that class ring, or you tried on a ring size too small at the jeweler’s, and the sizer just won’t come off. Along comes butter. Grease on a little off that yellow stuff and the ring should slide ride off.

n life, we are the ring, we just can’t budge on our own, and grace is the butter that makes things possible. Maybe there’s a situation you just can’t get through, it’s beyond your reach, past your limitations. But through God’s love and grace, you get to where you need to be. And every time we say, “Oh, it’s such a God thing, the Lord is providing for us tonight!” that’s grace! My adoption, that which gave me two loving parents instead of life in poverty with a single teenage mother, that which kept me from being just another number trapped in the foster care system – that was God’s grace. Sometimes, this grace is the only thing keeping even the most responsible woman, the hardest working man, from financial collapse or ruin – as we say, there but for the grace of God go I. This was the type of grace Newton sang about – the grace that got him through that awful storm.

Above all, grace is undeserved. If life were fair, there would be a lot more pain and suffering even than there already is; we wretches would be left to our own pride and sin. There’s an old quote, I don’t know who said it, but: “Your worst days are never so bad that you are beyond the reach of God's grace. And your best days are never so good that you're beyond the need of God's grace.”

That’s the grace we all know, the grace we sing about, the grace upon which we reflect. There is, however, a second side to grace, and while it may not be as important as the first, it should not be overlooked. And it is another form of grace showcased by Newton’s life and hymn, a hymn was originally titled not “Amazing Grace,” but rather, “Faith’s Review and Expectation.”

“Faith’s Review and Expectation.”

You see, it wasn’t good enough for Newton to accept God’s grace and then spend the rest of his life in prayerful piety. Faith brought along with it an expectation. Worship and personal purity, for all their importance, just aren’t enough. We as Christians have to pass that grace along, we have to interact with our community the way Christ did, and the way Newton worked to do by aiding Wilberforce in his campaign to abolish the slave trade. It’s my belief that one way we can do this is through political participation.

While St. Paul generally tells us how to live, Christ shows us how to give. The Gospels are about community, and call us to do many things in the world rather than just in our homes. One common theme, for instance, is helping the poor. There are hundreds of verses throughout the Bible to that effect, some say over 3000, none more famous than Matthew 25: 37-40. “Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” You did to me.

In fact, this passage is so important, that it’s not just a parable or even a commandment. It’s a judgment. It is the only judgment Christ Himself, albeit not the Bible, specifically labels as such.

But acting upon the compassion of Christ, and respecting one another as equal children of God, is not the only action we are called to do. Some Christians say that we are also called to fight the influence of homosexuality, pointing to various passages in Leviticus and the Epistles, particularly Romans 1. We are certainly called to reaffirm the strength of the family and to make sure that every child is loved, and to encourage responsibility wherever we can – that good old Protestant work ethic. We are also tasked with resisting oppressive governments – as Mother Mary sang in Luke 1, “He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” Well, if we’re going to act Christlike, then we too will need to lift up the lowly, and cast down the powerful when they abuse that power.

It is important, I believe, that we use the best tools at our disposal to accomplish these goals. One such tool is voting, because it cannot be denied that government has an effect on poverty; it has an effect on abortion; it plays a role in health care and the combating of disease; every child that dies in war dies at the hands of a governmental declaration. Government itself is not part of our faith system; it is not necessarily one of the issues we need to address. But it is a tool with which we can address those issues, and how can we truly claim to be fixing a problem if we are ignoring the biggest tools in our toolbox?

I’m not pushing any particular view of government, I’m merely pointing out that government always plays a role. We can certainly disagree on what that role is, but I think at the end of the day, we still have a Christian obligation and expectation to be politically active, which means, at the very least, to vote. Let me give an example.

Take poverty. If you’re liberal, if you believe the government programs work and that things like food stamps and a progressive income tax help raise up the poor, if you think foreign aid makes a difference, then you should vote for Obama or Nader. If you’re conservative, and you think government programs are ineffective and waste money that could do more for the poor by staying in the private sector, if you believe government just gets in the way and perhaps even increases poverty, then vote for McCain or Barr. But to stand back and do nothing, to say yes, I’m a Christian and I am obligated to help the poor, but I’m only going to do so through soup kitchens and donations and ignore the government’s effect, whatever it may be, is unconscionable. The liberal Christian who doesn’t vote for a liberal politician is ignoring an important tool for doing what Christ told him to do, to fight poverty. And the conservative Christian who doesn’t vote for the politician who promises to cut regulations is choosing to leave what he believes are roadblocks in the way of the poor, despite Christ’s instructions to remove those roadblocks as best we can. You’ve got, at the very least, to vote. Obviously our obligations don’t end there, but given the monumental weight of what’s happening in just five days, it’s sure a good place to start.

When we as Christians vote, when we pass along the grace using every tool at our disposal, great things can happen. We all know this is true in our daily lives, but it’s also true of government. Wilberforce’s faith and political ambitions combined to end the British slave trade. Christians acting as Christians also played a role in the United States’ abolitionist movement, and in the Civil Rights Movement – the REV. Martin Luther King; the REV. Ralph Abernathy. Yes, Jesus’ grace included a lot more than engaging the Roman government and challenging Caesar’s title as the son of God, and it included a lot more than exposing the hypocrisy of local religious leaders in bed with Roman imperialism. We’ll need to do a lot more, too – but again, it’ll be a good place for us to start.

So pay attention, and remember the Christian importance of every issue in the papers. I doubt Jesus cares how you vote; just vote, and consider the Christian issues, all of them, from genocide to abortion, when you do. Don’t hog the grace – pass it along.

I would add more one thing. Voting is not the only way we can show grace to one another during this election season. It is also important that we respect one another; that we recognize that we can disagree on the proper role of government and still come together in worship and unite around the underlying values. The division that plagues this red and blue nation and the hate that has come from supporters of both candidates over the past few months are not the things we Christians can stand for. I’d like to share two quotes to that affect, the first one from Republican John Danforth, an Episcopal priest and retired Senator and U.N. Ambassador. Danforth writes,

“If we are convinced that our opinions on social and political questions are the law of God, then people who oppose our opinions become opponents of God. If, in contrast, we recognize the limits of our own understanding of God’s truth, while acknowledging that our opponents are trying, as we are, to do God’s will, we are able to be ambassadors of reconciliation. In that case, our faithfulness in politics depends less on the content of our ideology than on how we view ourselves and treat each other. “Faith in politics has more to do with the way faithful people approach politics than with the substance of our positions.

And even more powerfully than Senator Danforth, St. Paul wrote to the Ephesians,

“Now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, so that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it.”

So, let us act in both diversity and unity because we have been given both diversity and unity; let us show grace because we have been shown grace. Vote, whether it’s next week in America or some other time in some other time in another home country. Do the Christian thing and pass the grace along; get Pentecostal; get active in every way you can.

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