March 5, 2023 ~ Second Sunday in Lent
Rev. Beckie Sweet
Amazing grace! How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found; was blind, but now I see.
I am guessing those lyrics were going through your mind as the Festival Chimes played that beautiful arrangement of this powerful, favorite hymn for us. This hymn is the most frequently requested hymn when planning memorial services for our loved ones. Do you remember the story of when, how, and why John Newton penned the lyrics to this hymn?
John Newton was just six years old when his mother died. At the time, his father was “out at sea.” His father was a slave trader. Newton followed in his father’s footsteps, and from a young age he went to sea and worked on slave ships. In 1745, at the tender age of 20, Newton himself was captured and became a slave. That is one reason it is so difficult to comprehend why, when he was subsequently rescued, Newton returned to sea, and the slave trade once more, becoming the captain of several slave ships.
In 1748, Newton was traveling from Africa to Liverpool, England and got caught up in an awful storm. The weather conditions were so severe that Newton was said to have called out to God asking for saving mercy. Newton considered himself to be an atheist at this point, so this was a last-ditch effort in an attempt to get help in order to survive. After nearly 11 stormy hours, during which nearly half of the crew was washed overboard and believed to have drowned, the seas calmed. No mention was made of the safety or survival of the human cargo ☹ John Newton was a man that despicably captured and sold other human beings in the slave trade. As he states in the hymn, although he was a wretch, God found him.
‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved;
How precious did that grace appear the hour I first believed.
The ship safely reached Ireland, which marked the beginning of Newton’s slow spiritual conversion. Although he didn’t instantly change his ways, he started reading the Bible, soon repented, and not only ceased his participation in the slave trade, but became an outspoken activist working to bring a legal end to slavery. He lived to see the British passage of the Slave Trade Abolition Act in 1807, after many years of supporting campaigns for its passage. Newton had experienced the depravity and hopelessness of his sin and the consequence of following his own corrupt ways. He focused on fulfilling what he wanted to do in his life instead of looking to the direction of God.
Through many dangers, toils, and snares, I have already come;
‘Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.
On August 15, 1843, in Buffalo, NY, fifty delegates from a dozen states gathered for the National Negro Convention. The delegates included Frederick Douglas, Henry Garnet, Samuel H. Davis, among others, who talked about how to gain the freedom of African Americans, both those who were enslaved and those who were nominally free.
In Davis’ opening remarks, he welcomed delegates “lately from that part of our country, where they see our brethren, bound in manacles, suffering and bleeding, under the hand of the tyrants, who hold in one hand the Constitution of the U.S., which guarantees freedom and equal rights to every citizen, and in the other the scourge dripping with human gore, drawn from the veins of his fellow man.”
We have yet to decide, Douglas said, if we will follow the Constitution or be a nation that is still defined by slavery. Recalling the work of W.E.B. Du Bois and his essay on the warring souls of African Americans, Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas asks, “What does it mean to be a people of soul in a nation that is defined by a warring soul?”
To answer this question, Douglas turns to another account of blatant bigotry in the form of misogyny ~ John 8:1-11, the story of the woman caught in adultery. Why misogyny? Well, where was the woman’s partner in this act? Why is she the only one sentenced to stoning? Jesus’ response to the Pharisees and scribes ~ “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Those gathered for the demonstration of violent male dominance put down their stones and walked away.
Bryan Stevenson, author of Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, says that to be a people of SOUL in a nation with a warring soul, we must, like Jesus, be stone catchers. It is not enough to NOT cast stones of hate, bigotry, intolerance or microaggression. We are to be stone catchers.
And Dr. Douglas outlines ways to be stone catchers. First: show up! She sadly asked, “Where were all the white folk who protested George Floyd’s murder when, in June of last year, Jayland Walker was shot more than 40 times for a traffic violation? Their (Our) absence was noticed. White folk need to show up in homes, town meetings, board meetings. White folk need to show up for a world free from the legacy of slavery and with all of its “isms.” White folk need to protest the murder of people who are stoned to death today because of who they are.
Second: speak up! What will it take to give us the courage to speak up against systemic racism. Martin Luther King, Jr. poignantly said that “the ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people, but the silence over that by good people.” White supremacy is etched into the soul of the nation.
Third: White folk need to stand with those who suffer injustice. Dr. Douglas tells the story of a Black man who felt more and more uncomfortable in his gentrified neighborhood. He was afraid that, like other Black men, he would be murdered for walking around his own neighborhood. So, his neighbors would daily walk with him. This is what it means to stand in solidarity with those at whom society casts stones.
Jesus was a stone catcher for the woman allegedly caught in adultery. His entire ministry was about stone catching. Jesus caught stones for the Samaritans, for the blind, for the lame, for any group targeted by hatred, prejudice, bigotry and fear.
Jesus did not hide behind his male privilege, his Jewish privilege, his Divine privilege, any of which might have protected him at various times. Rather, Jesus used his privilege to catch stones being thrown at others.
We must do the same. The privileges that protect us should propel us to protect those whose lives are in danger. Those who gathered in Buffalo at the 1843 National Negro Convention put their own lives at risk to stand with their enslaved siblings. Now, in a nation with a warring soul, we must refuse to be anything less than stone catchers. This is what it means to be A SOUL-ful people!
The Lord has promised good to me, his word my hope secures;
He will my shield and portion be, as long as life endures.
Do you recognize these names? Aaron Salter, Jr. Celestine Chaney, Roberta Drury, Andre Mackniel, Katherine Massey, Margus Morrison, Heyward Patterson, Geraldine Talley, Ruth Whitfield, Pearl Young. Their lives no longer endure on this earth. They are the Buffalo 10, murdered on May 14, 2022 at Tops Friendly Market on the East Side of Buffalo by a white supremacist from Conklin, NY. St. Paul’s UMC has made the decision to stand up and speak up by standing with the neighborhood in which the Buffalo 10 lived and shopped. Our Easter Offering this year will support scholarships for impoverished youth of this neighborhood. Please begin now to prayerfully consider a generous donation as we endeavor to catch stones on behalf of those upon whom racists seek to do harm only due to the color of their neighbor’s skin.
Over the next four weeks, we will spell out S-O-U-L ~ SOUL. We are called to be SOUL-ful People on behalf of Christ! S-Stone Catcher.