Sermon: Proper 12A
Romans 8: 26-39
24 July, 2011
First Baptist Church of Chicago
Take My Hand
(Prologue – When the Way is Dark and Drear)
Precious Lord, take my hand
Lead me on, let me stand
I am tired, I am weak, I am worn
Through the storm, through the night
Lead me on to the light
Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home
It was 1932 and a 32 year old choir leader, name Thomas Dorsey, was called to a revival in St. Louis. He was leaving his 9-month pregnant wife at home. They were expecting their first child. Here is his account of the what happened:
“Back in 1932, I was 32 years old and a fairly new husband. My wife, Nettie, and I were living in a little apartment on Chicago’s South side.
One hot August afternoon I had to go to St. Louis, where I was to be the featured soloist at a large revival meeting. I didn’t want to go. Nettie was in the last month of pregnancy with our first child. But a lot of people were expecting me in St. Louis. I kissed Nettie good-bye, clattered downstairs to our Model A and, in a fresh Lake Michigan breeze, chugged out of Chicago on Route 66.
“However, outside the city, I discovered that in my anxiety at leaving, I had forgotten my music case. I wheeled around and headed back. I found Nettie sleeping peacefully. I hesitated by her bed; something was strongly telling me to stay. But eager to get on my way, and not wanting to disturb Nettie, I shrugged off the feeling and quietly slipped out of the room with my music.
“The next night, in the steaming St. Louis heat, the crowd called on me to sing again and again. When I finally sat down, a messenger boy ran up with a Western Union telegram. I ripped open the envelope. Pasted on the yellow sheet were the words: YOUR WIFE JUST DIED.
“People were happily singing and clapping around me, but I could hardly keep from crying out. I rushed to a phone and called home. All I could hear on the other end was ‘Nettie is dead. Nettie is dead.’
“When I got back, I learned that Nettie had given birth to a boy. I swung between grief and joy.
“Yet that night, the baby died. I buried Nettie and our little boy together, in the same casket. Then I fell apart. For days I closeted myself. I felt that God had done me an injustice. I didn’t want to serve Him any more or write gospel songs. I just wanted to go back to that jazz world I once knew so well.
“But then, as I hunched alone in that dark apartment those first sad days, I thought back to the afternoon I went to St. Louis. Something kept telling me to stay with Nettie. Was that something God? Oh, if I had paid more attention to Him that day, I would have stayed and been with Nettie when she died. From that moment on I vowed to listen more closely to Him. But still I was lost in grief.
“Everyone was kind to me, especially a friend, Professor Fry, who seemed to know what I needed. On the following Saturday evening he took me up to Poro College, a neighborhood music school. It was quiet; the late evening sun crept through the curtained windows. I sat down at the piano, and my hands began to browse over the keys. Something happened to me then. I felt at peace. I felt as though I could reach out and touch God. I found myself playing a melody, into my head – they just seemed to fall into place.1”
That is how the hymn Take My Hand, Precious Lord came to be. Pray With me:
Here these words from Paul’s letter to the Romans as you consider the theme of “Take my Hand.”
(Scene 1 – Are we alone?)
“For your sake we are being killed all day long; and we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.” Paul is quoting Psalms here as he conveys the state of mind of the audience to whom he is writing. The Christians in Rome were a decisive minority, and a rejected and persecuted one at that. They had been abandoned by their fellow Jews – called a rebel sect who were following this new leader – Chirstus. Their arguments had gotten so bad, the Roman authorities had kicked the Jews out – believers and non-believers alike. While the Jews were exiled the seed had been planted and the Christian faith continued in Rome, but it was the Gentiles who carried it on.
Several years after the exile of the Jews the caesar who demanded the exile died and the Jews returned to Rome – among them the Jewish Chirstians. They returned to a decidedly different church. One dominated by those they deemed unfit to be true Chirstians.
Add to this confusion of what makes a “true Chirstian” the fact that throughout the empire Christians are being killed by the state – you have a fragile church that is wondering where God is?
We are confronted with a church that is wondering what her purpose is. Are we alone? Paul commends our faith, but there are so many things getting in the way of belief that it may just be easier to give up and do what the Romans do. Our Spirit is weak and we can not pray as we ought. Are we alone?
(Scene 2 – Hello?)
Thomas Dorsey, “closeted up” those days after the deaths of his wife and baby boy, had given up hope in the God he served. He was abandoned by the one to whom he dedicated his life. The Romans felt like their world was a disaster – not knowing right from left. The world is turned upside down.
I spent the last two weeks up in Minnesota and it was an interesting time to be there. Their world was turned upside down. For nearly a month the state government was shut down. The Republicans and the DFL (as the Democrats are known up there) could not reach an agreement on the budget, and as a result all non-essential services were closed. State Parks, Rest Stops, the DMV, Licensing boards. And things that we don’t miss until they are gone. There was a couple who adopted a son in Texas, but were unable to come home to the St. Paul because the state agency that did the paper work for adoptions was shut down.
We arrived in MN during the second week of the shutdown. During week 3 the Governor – a DFL party member – came to Southeast MN where we were staying – so his visit was all over the news. Instead of the Tea Party madness of the only way to fix things is cut, cut, cut – the news actually covered what happened inside the meetings. Gov. Dayton met with those who would be most affected by the proposed budget cuts – the elderly and the disabled. People who had no way to care for themselves and needed – desperately – the checks they got from the government to buy their food and get their prescriptions. They were pleading for compassion. There was a woman who worked her whole life and then got injured on the job and had to be on disability – she was going to loose here house if they made the proposed cuts. Lives were being shaken upside down. Sadly the budget that made the cuts was eventually the one adopted.
This is similar to the fight going on in DC at the moment. The ones elected to serve our best interest are not thinking about the least among us. There some here today who are invisible to the ones fighting over how much to cut in order to keep a millionaire from moving to a higher tax bracket.
People are becoming invisible. The powers and principalities conspire to keep the least among us in that position. The world is being turned upside down. People are becoming invisible. You and I are becoming invisible.
We struggle to understand how – if government is ordained by God – can it be so cruel to the smallest. We wonder how we are going to cover the next mound of medical bills. We struggle to understand why a bank we have been with and paid our mortgage faithfully would not allow us to refinance and instead wishes to take our house from us. We “closet” up, and don’t want to face another headline of a beautiful baby being killed in the crossfire of the wars on our streets. The powers of death, destruction and demons; of things seen and unseen; high and low; conspire against us. Powers and principalities cover us in the veil of death that is being woven by the forces of darkness – determined to prevent us from seeing the love of God. They weigh on us and keep pricking us. Just as we see a sign of hope. “You’re fired.” As the light begins to peek over the horizon; bang bang bang. O God, I pray, but I have no words.
When my way grows drear
Precious Lord linger near
When my life is almost gone
Hear my cry, hear my call
Hold my hand lest I fall
Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home
(Scene 3 – I’m Here)
Rest assured, Paul tells the Christians of Rome – when you have no words – The Holy Spirit is there to intercede for us. Hearing our groans and searching our hearts, she sighs and God hears. God knows the pains you are going through. God has given God’s son – God gives everything that is needed.
God saw the Christians through their persecution. God built a church that has touched the ends of the Earth.
Priscilla and Aquila returned to Rome and the church flourished.
Persecution became the rule under Nero, but the faithful in Christ were more than conquerers to that which oppressed them.
The church began to grow. The church spread from the deserts of Palestine to the columns of Rome. To the sands of Egypt and the fields of Dover. The church flourished in the African desert and men like Augustine began to change the world.
The church flourished. But as it grew it became the power it despised. Christendom took over and Christianity began to fade.
It came to the new world. It came though, as a conquer, but there were those who heard these words form Paul. The slaves – the daughters of Monica – hearing the promise of a Grace that justifies and glorifies – brought a revival to our land.
They understood that it is God who is the true master and no one on this earth can keep them from the Grace that is in Christ Jesus. No matter what wickedness may be perpetuated upon God’s people – God will sustain and God will provide.
As time moved on – People began to rest in the assurance of Grace that is Jesus Christ, and as they did they reached out. They began to speak out about the injustices around them. Making the invisible visible. Sojourner Truth, Fredrick Douglas, Susan B. Anthony. Walter Rauschenbush, Gardner Taylor, Ralph Abernathy, Martin Luther King. These people found voice and named the God who triumphs over the veil of death.
Ida B. Wells. Harold Washington. Jane Adams. Nothing separates us from the Grace of God.
Jitsu Morikawa, Jesse Brown, You, Me. We have been saved by Grace. We have been justified. We have been glorified.
The God of Grace is one who sees the least among us and says Take my Hand.
Nothing could separate our forbearers in faith from that Grace.
(Scene 4 – Take MY Hand!)
Nothing can separate us from that Grace, either.
For it is there for all whether Jew or Gentile; Christian or Muslim; Man or Woman; Black or White; LGBTQ or straight. God’s grace is sufficient for everyone. And, as believers, nothing the world can throw at us will conquer us.
We have been called to a specific purpose – to be a church that stands in the dark places when it seems God has left the building. To be a beacon of light – like Professor Fry was to Thomas Dorsey – and shine for those who have closeted themselves up.
Sisters and Brothers – we are able. We are beloved. We have nothing to fear. Christ has closed the chasm that would separate us from God.
For I am convinced that neither medical bills, nor student loans, nor 60 hour work weeks, nor the loss of a job, nor the loss of friends, nor a cheating boyfriend, nor a teasing girlfriend, nor foreclosure, nor divorce, nor stubborn children, nor abusive parents, nor moving away, nor empty nesting, nor sex, nor gangs, nor drugs, nor death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
God has crossed that chasm and reaches down. God’s hand is there. Reach for it. Listen for God around you and you may just hear:
Precious Child, take my hand
Lean on me, I’ll help you stand
You are mine; I am here; I am yours
Through the storm, through the night
Look to me, I’m your Light
Take my hand precious Child, Take my hand.