The Fourth Sunday of Lent
March 26, 2016
The Rev. Austin K Rios
St. Paul’s Within the Walls
Born in 1725 to a committed Christian mother and a largely absent father whose living was made upon the swirling seas, the little boy was caught between competing claims on his life from the beginning.
In the long months of her husband’s absence, the child’s mother instructed him in Scripture, until her untimely death from tuberculosis when the boy was but 7.
From that point on, the child entered into his father’s “care,” accompanying the merchant on various sea voyages throughout the bulk of his teen years.
The growing adolescent began to embrace the unanchored liberty and permissiveness of his new situation, and little by little began to leave behind the religious instruction he had received from his mother.
When his father retired from seafaring in 1742, the elder captain endeavored to secure the future fortunes of his son, and arranged for the young man to travel to Jamaica, where he would quickly become an wealthy as overseer of slaves on a sugar plantation, and be able to return one day to England to a potential seat in Parliament.
But, because the young man had fallen in love with a local girl from Kent, he missed his ship to Jamaica and the opportunity to raise his station in 18th century English society.
His father was livid and forced him to join the Royal Navy, where the young man soon learned a harder form of discipline.
He soon completed the task of shedding the remnants of his mother’s religion—prayer and the Bible gave way to prostitutes and blasphemy.
After an especially debaucherous shore leave in Venice, the young man had a dream in which he symbolically threw away God’s mercy and grace (it was a gold ring in his dream), and experienced God retrieving the ring and holding it in trust for him until he learned not to squander it.
Though the dream rattled him for awhile, causing him to take up the bare bones of the faith, his heart was not convinced, and he soon returned to his life of licentiousness.
After a brief shore leave back in England in which he once more called upon the local girl from Kent, the young man determined to leave the Navy after finding out his company was scheduled for a 5 year trip to the West Indies.
He deserted the Navy, but was soon captured, then beaten, and forced to accompany his former captain and crew on the long voyage across the Atlantic.
However, somehow through his father’s connections, he avoided this fate by climbing aboard a ship bound for the Guinea coast, the heart of the international slave trade.
The young man worked there for a landowner and slave trader for two years, but was abused by his master and mistress, so much so that the slaves he served had pity on him.
They snuck food to him and even acted as couriers for the desperate letters he wrote and hoped would reach his father back in England.
Help eventually came, and the broken young man boarded the Greyhound, a boat bound for Liverpool, and picked up a copy of Thomas a Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ to pass the time.
But it would be no easy passage.
A powerful storm arose during the journey and threatened to sink the ship.
A crew member was swept out to sea, and the man tied himself to the boat in order to avoid a similar fate, and was forced to steer the battered boat.
Whether it was the fear of certain death or some other spiritual prompting, in that perilous moment the young man converted to Christianity, and the boat was spared.
Later on, he would remark that though he professed and no longer denied faith in Christ, he could not “consider [himself] to have been a believer, in the full sense of the word.”
He went on to captain slave ships, and even though he expressed care for the souls of his crew and cargo during this time, he went along with the prevailing winds of his day and never questioned the practice of slavery in general.
It took retirement from the sea and friendship with the Wesley brothers and George Whitefield to advance the Christian transformation of the now middle aged man.
He began holding Bible studies in his home, and soon felt a call to ordained leadership in the Anglican Church.
But due to politics in the church, it took a full seven years before the retired sea captain was made a priest, and shortly thereafter he was sent to serve in a very poor parish full of artisans and craftsmen who worked in lace.
It was during this time that he began writing hymns for his parish’s weekly prayer service along with a poet of his day, William Cowper.
The priest was moved by the genuine faith of his parishioners, and labored on behalf of them saying once, “I get more warmth and light sometimes by a letter from a plain person who loves the Lord Jesus, though perhaps a servant maid, than from some whole volumes, put forth by learned Doctors.”
At the age of 39, he wrote his own “volume,” an autobiography published anonymously, that spoke about his early life and times in the slave trade at length.
When people found out who actually wrote the popular book, the priest became famous and eventually began serving a wealthy, influential parish in London.
As he grew older, he became more and more convinced that the acceptance of slavery and the commodification of human beings was contrary to the Gospel that had freed him from the bondage of his earlier years.
Writing on the subject at length, he was eventually brought in to testify to a Parliamentary committee that was investigating the trade and its legality.
As it turned out, his accounts of the slave trade “from the inside” were influential in advancing the abolitionist movement in England and throughout the Empire.
The fulcrum of the man’s life rested upon his ever-evolving understanding of God’s liberation of the captives and an all-encompassing, and unmerited grace that passed all understanding.
When the man died at the age of 82, his tombstone read, “John Newton, clerk, once an infidel and libertine, a servant of slaves in Africa, was, by the rich mercy of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, preserved, restored, pardoned, and appointed to preach the faith he had long laboured to destroy.”
Newton is best remembered for writing the hymn we sang before the Gospel.
Amazing Grace is arguably the most famous hymn ever written, and its signature line “I once was lost, but now am found, was blind but now I see” describes Newton’s personal journey of healing and redemption, as well as the experience of the unnamed man born blind in today’s Gospel.
John’s tale is meant to convince us, the hearers, that Jesus is indeed the light of the world and is calling us to conversion and to participate in a new social order and community.
This conversion is symbolized by “having our eyes opened” to the fact that the only real sin that matters in the divine economy is our blindness to the connections we share in the Creator, and our subsequent misguided attempts to legislate and mediate the ever-abundant grace of God.
Each of us are being called by God for a purpose, and are given tools with which to accomplish that mission.
In the case of the man born blind, his physical sight was restored “so that God’s works might be revealed in him,” and, per Jesus’ instructions, he washes in the pool of Siloam (which means Sent) because his newfound sight is meant for more than just his own edification and enjoyment.
He is SENT to the religious police of his day who have become too comfortable with the status quo, so much so that they have become blind to its liberating possibilities that fall outside their frame of reference.
John Newton, “once an infidel and a libertine” was called to ordained life from a former life of sinfulness and slave trading, and SENT to a society content with considering other humans as property in order to help them see how wrong and counter-Christian that life was for all involved in it.
What about you?
How is God’s grace transforming your life, and freeing you from a life of futility?
Where is God calling you to go for the sake of the Gospel, and to whom are you being SENT after receiving the healing we know in Christ?
After this service, your vestry is going to be grappling with how we, as a community redeemed and animated by the same God who gave sight to the blind man and amazing grace to Newton, will respond to Christ’s call on our lives.
Will we build up and invest in this counter-cultural community that we have inherited from our forebears in the faith, and if we say yes, HOW will we do so?
Will we allow ourselves to be SENT where the Spirit leads and boldly employ the gifts we have been given for the greater glory of God?
Our fullest lives, and the lives of so many others still walking in blindness, depend on our whole-hearted response of “yes” in thought, word, and deed.
May the rest of this Lenten season open our eyes anew to the true light of the World so that we may see new possibilities.
And may we, like countless generations of the spiritually awakened who have gone before, respond to the call, and be graced with the courage and will to go where God is sending us.