Tuesday, September 28, 2010

A Thousand Tongues (Wesley Hymns #1)

Acts 26
2 Kings 7 (kids)
Psalm 40.1-11 (call to worship)

A few weeks ago I was listening to a lecture by church historian Diana Butler-Bass (2009 audio, Christianity21, JoPa Productions). She referred to a television interview of Jon Meacham, editor of Newsweek, who had just received a Pulitzer for a biography of Andrew Jackson. The interviewer, Joe Scarborough, asked, “Why don’t you write about something relevant [as opposed to history]?” Meacham’s response: “History is to a country what memory is to an individual.”

Butler-Bass reminded her listeners of the pain of memory loss or caring for family members with memory loss. She, borrowing Meacham, declared, “History is to a church what memory is to an individual.” And she went on to say that history brings wholeness (the wholeness of a clear and honest memory) and that people who study history are more open to change, because they really have seen it all before. In God’s economy, memory doesn’t tie us to the past but to the future, to promise.

Each fall, we’ve been doing a series I’ve called ROOTS. We’ve looked at the movements of grace in Wesleyan theology, at the stories of Jesus at a place called Bethany, and – this year – at several hymns by Charles Wesley. It’s an effort to keep us rooted in a history and tradition that is older than us, older than our memories and our grandparents’ memories.

Charles Wesley and his brother John were the two founding figures of the Methodist movement. John was the organizer and the best known preacher, but Charles wrote some 9,000 hymns! The 51 Charles Wesley hymns in our hymnal, more than any other author, are only a small portion of his gift to the church.
I love the hymn “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing”. It originally had 18 verses, 17 of which are included in our hymnal. If you look at the notes in the hymnal, you will see that Charles Wesley wrote it in 1739 to commemorate an anniversary, the anniversary of his conversion May 21, 1738.

When God has done something in our lives, it is the most natural thing in the world to talk about it. You get close to someone, you hear their passion, whether it is the new grandchild or the recent fishing trip or the Penn State game. Talking about our faith, telling that story, is not about a canned presentation and sales pitch. It’s about life suffused with grace. “King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision” (Acts 26.19). Once your life has been hijacked by the grace of God folks are going to notice, and they are going to ask: You really kept your cool with that irate customer; I couldn’t have done that. . . . Hey, like, I know you pray and get answers, right? Would you pray for me? . . . Don’t Christians believe in forgiveness? I just can’t do it. How do you manage?

Well, King Agrippa and most excellent Festus, I’m a forgiven man. I know what I have done; I know what I deserve; and I know what God has done for me. I don’t like to forgive, but I can’t be disobedient to the heavenly vision.

Well, King Agrippa and most excellent Festus, when I stumbled blind into Damascus, there was this guy – Ananias – who prayed over me and I received my sight. Sure. I’ll pray for you.

Well, King Agrippa and most excellent Festus, Jesus upon the cross prayed, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” So, when someone gets bent out of shape I try to live with that same generosity – to offer forgiveness even when it isn’t asked, to not judge too harshly folks who don’t really understand why they are becoming so defensive.

Well, King Agrippa and most excellent Festus, I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision.

The old fashioned word for this is being a witness. Note the verb in the phrase: BEING. Witnessing is first about who we are, it is not first about what we say. Here in Acts, we hear Paul’s conversion story for the third time, the second time he has witnessed to it. But the only reason people want to hear the story is because of who Paul is, Paul BEING a witness. His summation: “I pray to God that not only you but all who are listening to me today might become such as I am – except for these chains” (Ac 26.29). “Such as I am” – Being a Witness.

Charles Wesley doesn’t write his conversion poem to enhance his reputation. He doesn’t provide it as one more awkward or overbearing effort to beat someone into the kingdom. He writes it because God has done something profound in his life: He knows he has been forgiven. Most old hymns have been revised in several ways before they come to us. This one is no exception. The original final verse read:

With me, your chief, you then shall know,
shall feel your sins forgiven;
anticipate your heaven below,
and own that love is heaven.
The verse now reads, “In Christ, your head, you then shall know.” The new reading is very much true. The original reading reflects Charles Wesley’s identification of himself, like Paul, as “chief of sinners” (1 Timothy 1.15; Companion to The United Methodist Hymnal, p 510-511). Wesley is overcome by the miracle of the love of Jesus Christ, who died for him, for us, for me, while we were still sinners, still enemies of the God of love.

“I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision.” So, what’s my story, my witness? I was raised in a home free of religion in any form. At some point, around the age of nine, I asked my dad, “Who’s God? What’s he like?” I don’t remember asking the question. I was just a curious kid. But the question put the family, and me, on an adventure of discovery. We went to church, which – when we weren’t singing or doing anything, that is, when the preacher was doing his thing – was boring to me. So I sat and read the Bible – the Jesus stories, the stories of Adam and Eve and Abraham and Sarah, the psalms. And I discovered that this God loved me in all my nine-year-old imperfection. I said “Yes” to Jesus, “Yes” to grace, “Yes” to forgiveness. And that was only the beginning of my story.

Today you’ve heard the stories of . . . [testimonies]. With the children, we had the story of the four men with leprosy who discovered that the Aramean camp was deserted, with all their treasure and food left behind. After eating their fill and stashing treasure from two tents, they realized: We have good news that must be shared. If we don’t share our good news, people will die, so we are responsible to tell the story.

O for a thousand tongues to sing
my great Redeemer’s praise,
the glories of my God and King,
the triumphs of his grace!

My gracious Master and my God,
assist me to proclaim,
to spread through all the earth abroad
the honors of thy name.

Jesus! the name that charms our fears,
that bids our sorrows cease;
‘tis music in the sinner’s ears,
‘tis life, and health, and peace.

He breaks the power of canceled sin,
he sets the prisoner free;
his blood can make the foulest clean;
his blood availed for me.

[With me, your chief,] you then shall know,
shall feel your sins forgiven;
anticipate your heaven below,
and own that love is heaven.
“Shall feel your sins forgiven.” In our baptismal covenant, we commit to “surround . . . persons with a community of love and forgiveness”. That is, we ask the congregation to model, together, the grace of God in all our relationships. It’s a tough thing to do. Too often we complain, we gossip, we argue. Any one of us, at any time, may be, to use polite language, “ungracious”. Together, though, we are called to be a people of grace, second chance, forgiveness, restoration. God knows, I am not perfect now – not in the absolute sense that we typically use. But you have forgiven me. You have judged me generously: “He don’t know what he’s doing.” Or, “He’s doing his best.” The reason we confess sin in the church is because in the church we recognize that we aren’t perfect – yet. God is still working on me, on us.

“O for a thousand tongues to sing”. A thousand? Our mission: Bethany Church exists to honor God by making more disciples for Jesus Christ. That word “more” is such a coercive word. But do you remember our vision? “500 new disciples in 5 years!” In our first 15 months, we’ve seen 40-some persons make significant steps in new discipleship. That’s 40 more stories to tell! God is doing some wonderful things among us.

For Charles Wesley, he imagined having 1000 tongues, he imagined all the praise that he could bring to God with those 1000 tongues. It reminds me of a Sesame Street sketch . . . . None of us, however, have more than one tongue. But as we pursue our mission, as we tell our stories, as we Be a Witness, God willing, at least 500 voices will be raised in fresh praise to God.

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