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Sunday, July 25, 2021

Five Black Notes


"Five Black Notes"
A Sermon Preached at 
St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Georgetown, DE
and simultaneously on 
Facebook Life Broadcast Sirach 26:10
Pentecost IX Proper 12 Year B
July 25, 2021
"Hymn Sing Sunday" 

Well, how about that first lesson, eh? Extra-marital affairs. Pregnancy out of wedlock. Murder and mayhem. It's like "Days of our Biblical Lives". Guess there's a "Young and the Restless" in every generation, eh? I have a great sermon about King David, and Bathsheba and Uriah the Hittite but not today. That will have to keep for another time.

Just before and immediately after I read this morning’s gospel, we all sang, “Amazing Grace”. It was one of five songs some of you requested for this morning’s, Hymn Sing. I want to expand a bit on the history of this song to answer the questions: What can God do with five loaves of barley bread and two fish. What are they among so many people?


We don’t know much about the origins of the music to this hymn, but we do know that the author of the words is John Newton, an Anglican priest and form slave owner.


According to British historian Marilyn Rouse, Newton began to pen these words in early December of 1772 because he needed a new hymn for his service on New Year’s Day at his church in Olney, England. He took for his text 1 Chronicles 17 when King David prays, “Who am I that God has brought me here?” That was an important question for David, a man to ask who slept with Uriah’s wife and then sent him into battle to die so he could have Bathsheba for his own.


On January 1, 1773, Newton asked, in his sermon, “Where were you when the Lord found you? For me,” Newton said, “I was a wretch.” And, he used his song to illustrate his point.


Newton’s mother had died suddenly while his father was out to sea. When he returned a year later, his father fell smitten to an Italian woman, married quickly and moved to Essex, leaving young Newton, who was still deeply grieving his mother, on his own.


Newton hired himself out to work on slave ships, quickly falling into a life of debauchery and calling himself “The Great Blasphemer.” Indeed, he himself had been thrown into chains and forced to work on a small island off the coast of Sierra Leon. After one year in captivity, he was freed but lived what he described as a “depraved life which even shocked his fellow shipmates”.


It was on March 21, 1748, that Newton came to call his “Great Turning Day.” He was 22 years old and captain of the ship “The Greyhound” which was sailing off the coast of County Donegal, Ireland. Suddenly, a violent storm hit the ship. As he came up onto the deck from his berth below, he saw no one at the helm; waves were taking other sailors over the side and into the swirling deep.


Newton took the helm and for the next eleven hours, he held onto that great wheel, praying fervently this one prayer, “Lord, have mercy on us.” He steered the ship all through the storm and when the storm had passed, Newton found himself a man transformed.


His transformation would continue slowly. Newton wrote, “If I had any light then, it was as the first streak of dawn.” Seven years later, at the age of 29, he was learning Greek and Hebrew and was studying with great evangelists of his day, George Whitefield and John Wesley.  He applied for the priesthood in the Church of England but was originally turned down. Eventually, the Bishop of Lincoln took him in, ordained him in 1764, and assigned him to the church in Olney, England.


In 1788, 19 years before his death, Newton wrote a booklet entitled, “Thoughts on the African Slave Trade,” which provided Abolitionists Wilber Wilberforce with powerful evidence of the depravity of slavery and indentured servitude.


Wilberforce allegedly struggled with a vocation to ordained ministry and took counsel with Newton who encouraged him to stay in the political field. Citing the Book of Ester, Newton told Wilberforce, “Who knows, but for such a time as this, God has raised you up for the good of the church and the good of the nation?”


In 1807, nineteen years before Newton’s death, the British parliament passed the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act, outlawing British Atlantic slave trade. It is estimated about 12.5 million people were transported as slaves from Africa to the Americas and the Caribbean between the 16th century and 1807. It would be left to the next generation that parliament passed the Abolition of Slavery in all British colonies in 1833.


Newton’s words were lost somewhere in England for many years. It is unknown if there was any music accompanying the verses; it may have been chanted by the congregation in a Scottish tune popular at the time. In the United States, "Amazing Grace" became a popular song used by Baptist and Methodist preachers as part of their evangelizing, especially in the South. It has been associated with more than 20 melodies. In 1835, American composer William Walker set it to the tune known as "New Britain" in a shape note format. This is the version most frequently sung today.

However, if you go to the Library of Congress and look up Amazing Grace, you will find that the words are attributed to John Newton, but next to the word melody, one will find the word ‘Unknown’. Some say the tune rose up from the West African slaves who chanted “Sorrow Chants” as they labored in the cotton fields in the South.

Evangelist and singer Wintley Phipps maintains that almost all Negro Spirituals are written on the Black notes of the piano. Let’s try it: LEVAS 114 (“Every time I feel the spirit.”) Now try LEVAS 18 (“Swing low, Sweet Chariot”). And now, let’s try LEVAS 181 “Amazing Grace.”

There are five black notes on the piano. This is called the Pentatonic Scale. Five little notes. Five black notes. The leaders of the Civil Rights Movement sang “Amazing Grace” while they marched and prayed.

It was a favorite of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as well as Nelson Mandela during the struggle against Apartheid in South Africa.

It was sung on Nov. 9, 1989, when the wall came down in East Berlin, Germany.

We heard that song played on bagpipes at every funeral for those who died on 9/11. I can attest that it is the most requested song for funerals. I never tire of hearing it.


Five little notes. The power of the Negro spiritual is built on five notes Five black notes, when sung in gratitude to God, can feed the souls of millions, just as five barley loaves and two fish fed five thousand on that mountain by the Sea of Galilee thousands of years ago.


Five loaves of barley bread and two fish. Philip asked Jesus, “But what are they among so many people? Six months’ wages,” he said, “would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.”


And Jesus blessed the bread and gave thanks to God and, after everyone had eaten, there were twelve baskets of food left over. Five black notes have been feeding millions of souls for centuries, during times of sorrow and sadness, calamity and chaos, redemption and renewal.

In ancient Israel that king and scoundrel, David, asked of God: “Who am I that God has brought me here?” John Newton asked his congregation in Olney England that brand new morning of January 1, 1773: “Where were you when the Lord found you?” 


Where were you when Jesus found you and you, and you said to him, “Take my hand, precious Lord. I am tired, I am weak, I am worn.”? Where were you when you felt like a motherless child, a long way from home, and Jesus picked you up and put you on his shoulders and led you home, back into the flock? Where were you when the Lord found you?


It doesn’t take much for God to bring about a miracle. For some, it takes a little bit of light to begin the miracle of a brand new day. For others, it takes a storm on the rough seas to convert a heart of stone to a heart of flesh. Sometimes it takes the loss of a loved one in this life to gain a deeper faith in life eternal. Jesus says that it takes a mustard seed of faith to move a mountain. It doesn’t take much, but even if we resist, God will continue to send us opportunities for the miracle of transformation.


My dear friend, Jerry Richardson, now a retired Methodist minister living in Tennessee, always preached, "Grace is like grits; you don't have to ask for it, it just comes" 


Five loaves of barley bread and two fish, lifted to God in gratitude brought about the miracle of feeding five thousand. Five little black notes and a heart filled with gratitude is all it took to feed a wretched, sin-sick soul and bring words and music to be the vehicles of health and healing and wholeness for millions, from generation to generation.


I will leave you with the fourth and little known verse of the original words of Newton’s Amazing Grace: “Yea, when this flesh and heart shall fail, and mortal life shall cease, I shall possess within the veil, a life of joy and peace.”


And let the church say, “Amen.”

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