Amazing Grace

The Third Sunday after Epiphany, Year B

Will you persevere in resisting evil, and whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?  I will with God’s help.

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.

Ya’ll, I think this hymn might be the most popular piece of Christian music ever created. Trust me, I looked up numerous blogs and found “Amazing Grace” listed as numero uno, number one at the top of the page time and time again.  Whenever this song is sung in sanctuaries across our country—across our globe even—it’s like a choir of angels has joined in.  I ask you today to reflect back on your own physical, emotional, and spiritual response when you have heard this hymn in church.  What is it about this piece of music that draws you in?  What memories does it tap into?  What about it speaks to your soul?

In my experience no matter where I am, there is a uninhibited visceral response to this hymn  (even amongst Episcopalians who often get the nickname, “the frozen chosen”).  I have witnessed parishioners belt out these verses at the top of their lungs; tears start streaming down faces; hands are open to receiving the Spirit (as if we were Pentecostals); and there is this sense of love that is spread round the room.  It is both an individual and a communal response to this beautiful hymn we all know so well.

For me this response takes over because of one particular line: “I once was lost but now am found.”  I hear these words and think, “Yes!  This is exactly what grace is: to feel completely known and loved by God, to feel like I don’t have to hide anymore, to feel like I am finally found!”  And that feeling, that experience of grace is overwhelming, is all-consuming, is absolutely amazing.

Yet I have found that our American culture has a preoccupation with the very opposite of being found by God.  Instead as a people we do our best to remain lost.  We do our best to hide who we truly are.  We do our best to actively run away from God, from others, and even from ourselves.  If we are honest we may realize that we are encouraged by our cultural context to only display a desperately small portion of ourselves to the world around us.  We are encouraged to put on a mask of our most perfect selves.  We are encouraged to hide our true selves—the good, the bad, (and yes) the ugly.

We hide our true selves by buying into society’s view of success—by believing how well we’ve done in our careers, how much money we’ve made, or how put together and composed we come across says something about our self worth.  We hide our true selves by not accepting our past experiences and our own limitations.  Instead we try to hide the pain through the abuse of alcohol, or drugs, or food.  We hide our true selves when we choose to close ourselves off from those closest to us, to not share our deepest and darkest emotions, to believe that those individuals we love could not love us back due to our inadequacies, due to our failings, due to those aspects of ourselves we even struggle to love.

Yet friends, no matter how far away we feel from others; no matter how much we try to hide ourselves; no matter how lost it seems like we are, we are never lost to God.  Just take Jonah as an example—today’s comical and satirical character from the Old Testament.  Looking at the whole story, Jonah really tries to flee, to hide, to remain lost from God.  At the beginning of the book, Jonah doesn’t want to go to Nineveh so he jumps on a boat in the opposite direction.  Yet God finds him there.  Then he is swallowed up by a giant fish and resides in the belly of the animal for three whole days.  But God finds him there too.  And even after God forgives Nineveh, Jonah goes off and sulks because God is merciful, and he becomes depressed to the point of suicide.  Yet God finds him there as well.

But Jonah (as humorous as he is) never fully turns back to God, never gives himself over to God, never quite surrenders to God and so never seems to encounter that same feeling we have experienced as we sing those words of, “Amazing grace! how sweet the sound,/… I once was lot, but now am found.”  Jonah’s running, Jonah’s hiding, Jonah’s lack of repenting keeps him from experiencing that feeling of finally being found—even though God is there with him the whole time.

However, this repentance (that ironically Jonah forgets and yet Nineveh embraces), this repentance is for every single one of us—for every child of God, for every disciple of Christ—, because we have all felt lost at one point or another and we all desire to be known, loved, and found.  Repentance is for Jonah and for Nineveh.  It is for Simon and for Andrew.  It is for James and for John.  It is for you and for me.  Repentance (our baptismal covenant focus from today) means choosing to no longer be lost.  “Will you persevere in resisting evil, and whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?”  Repentance means the opportunity to return to the Divine one from which we had distanced ourselves.  Repentance means not hiding anymore—not hiding from ourselves; not hiding from others; and not hiding from God.  Repentance means giving ourselves over to vulnerability, admitting our sins, admitting our failings, admitting our limitations, and exposing our whole selves—every single dimension we would rather deny—so that we may be known, and loved, and found.

Even though it may be scary; it may be difficult; it may even be a painful process, repentance is the risk we take to take part in the in-breaking of the kingdom of God proclaimed by Christ in today’s Gospel from Mark.  We ourselves get to experience Jesus’ ministry.  We ourselves are liberated, are restored, are healed by Christ when we chose reconciliation over separation and repent and return to the Lord.  And we, in so doing, we are then empowered as are all of Christ’s disciples to bring that same liberation, restoration, and healing to the world around us.

Repentance is the foundation for transformation.  Because we ourselves (us broken and imperfect human beings) have experienced God’s amazing grace, our call to discipleship is a long standing commitment to model vulnerability, to fish for others, to be vehicles of God’s grace for a broken and imperfect world.  Our call is to admit that,

Through many dangers, toils and snares,
[We] have already come;
’Tis grace hath brought [us] safe thus far,
And grace will lead [us] home.

And our repentance is not solely a single moment in time but a continuous choice of exposure over hiddenness for the long haul.  It means day in and day out modeling vulnerability over denying our deficiencies, over wearing masks to cover the scars, so that we are no longer lost but only and forever are found.  It means knowing that, “When we’ve been there ten thousand years,/ Bright shining as the sun,” that every day we shall sing God’s grace, as much as the day when it first begun.

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.”

 

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