A Tale of Two Hymns | Aug. 6, 2017

12 Hymns Project: Come thou fount, and Rain down

Texts: Matthew 5:43-48

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness…”

You might recognize these as the opening lines to A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, and even though I’ve never read it, I couldn’t help be think of these words as I prepared the sermon for this morning.  Months ago when we were trying to decide how to fit 12 hymns into 10 weeks of worship services, Rain down and Come thou fount were lumped together mostly because they contained pretty overt water imagery and they both were prayers of petition to God to rain down blessings.  That seemed like enough to lump them together, so we did.  And we planned to figure the rest out later. 

Well, later is now, and the more I tried to synthesize these two sets of lyrics into one coherent message during the last few days, the more I found to contrast in them.  Yes, they both draw on images and metaphors about God’s love being like water: falling down, flowing, raining, streams and fountains, thirst quenching, life-giving, saturating water.  Yes, as Joel mentioned a few weeks ago when he talked about the importance of paying attention to the audience of a text, both of them are directed to God as prayers.  Yes, they both are prayers that, at least in part, petition God to rain down blessings and love. 

But then they start to diverge a bit. 

First, let’s look a little more closely at Come thou fount.  Now I realize we haven’t sung it yet, so let me remind us of some of the lyrics:

“Come thou fount of ev’ry blessing, tune my heart to sing thy grace.  Streams of mercy, never ceasing, call for songs of loudest praise.  Teach me some melodious sonnet, sung by flaming tongues above.  Praise the mount I’m fixed upon it, mount of God’s unchanging love.”  (An interesting note that as far as I can tell, this last line was changed somewhere along the way from the original by just one word, from redeeming love to unchanging love.) 

“Here I raise my Ebenezer, hither by thy help I’m come, and I hope, by thy good pleasure, safely to arrive at home.  Jesus sought me when a stranger, wand’ring from the fold of God.  He, to rescue me from danger, interposed his precious blood.”

If you’ve been waiting your entire life to find out what in the world an Ebenezer is, hold on.  Renee is going to dig into that a little more later, so I’ll leave it alone for now.  But it is this third verse that especially sticks out to me:

“Oh, to grace how great a debtor daily I’m constrained to be!  Let that grace now, like a fetter, bind my wand’ring heart to thee.  Prone to wander, Lord I feel it, prone to leave the God I love.  Here’s my heart, O take and seal it, seal it for thy courts above.” 

There’s not much remarkable about this last verse until you hold it up against the text of Rain down, but I want us to take note of where it seems this prayer is coming from.  What was the mindset of Robert Robinson when he wrote these words (or some version of these words)?  When we sing these words, what are we saying about God?  What are we saying about ourselves?  What are we saying about the relationship we have between ourselves and this thing (that isn’t a ‘thing’) we call God? 

“How great a debtor daily I’m constrained to be…Bind my wand’ring heart to thee…Prone to leave the God I love…Take and seal [my heart] for thy courts above.” 

The love we’ve found that overflows in our songs of loudest praise comes to us in spite of who we are, in spite of our wand’ring heart, in spite of the debt we owe, in spite of the fact that we were once strangers.  We claim this love and it overflows into singing because we recognize that we are not worthy of it. 

In researching Robert Robinson, I found a number of stories about his life and his conversion to following Christ that were fascinating in the ways they overlapped but also diverged.  My favorite part was that there is something that happened related to a drunken fortune teller, but different sources tell that story in varying ways.  What most of them agree on, however, is that Robinson was swayed back into faith by a prominent street evangelist who preached on Matthew 3:7 where Jesus rails against the religious elite about fleeing the wrath that is to come.  Something about this sermon stuck with Robinson and Come thou fount was written a few years later. 

A fiery street preacher and a warning of oncoming wrath are part of what shaped Robinson and his inspiration, part of what shapes the context of Come thou fount.  An experience of grace rooted in a redeeming love that is available to us despite our wandering, sinful hearts. 

And then we turn to Rain down and suddenly we get a bit of a different picture.  Again, I want us to think about what the words to this song say about God, about us, and about the relationship that exists between us.  What is the overall impression we get about faith when we sing its words?

We’ve already sung it, so I won’t refresh us on all of the lyrics, but there are a few I want to draw out.  In the first verse, there’s actually a line that caught me off guard when I took the time to look at the words more closely: “God’s mercy falls on the just and the right.”

And then in the second verse, there is a lot of “us” language, but we should ask, Who is the us?  “We who revere and find hope in our God live in the kindness and joy of God’s wing.  God will protect us from darkness and death; God will not leave us to starve.”

“Rain down, rain down, rain down your love on your people.”

While Rain down doesn’t explicitly say anything about the “them” in relation to the “us” or whether there are “others” in relation to “your people,” it certainly seems like these lyrics come from a place of claiming God’s love and protection from an inside perspective.  It’s a plea for love to rain down because of who we are, because of our faith and trust, because of our status as part of God’s good creation. 

God, pour out your love on us, in spite of who we are.  God pour out your love on us, because of who we are.

In spite of…because of…

It is this tension between the two songs and the line from the first verse of Rain down that led me to choosing the passage from Matthew 5 for today.  The line from verse 1, “God’s mercy falls on the just and the right” leaves me feeling like we need to say more.  Cue Jesus:

“For God makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” 

In a way, Jesus has been building to this part of the Sermon on the Mount with the series of “You’ve heard it said…but I say to you” statements.  He gets to this last one and hits us with a real theological humdinger. 

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” 

This is what it means to be called children of God because this is what it means to be like God: loving enemies, praying for those who persecute, sending good things to those who have no love for you in return.  Or as Luke’s version of this passage puts it: “God is kind to the ungrateful and wicked.” 

And there is lots that could be said (and has been said) about what it means to love your enemies, what that looks like, and how we can enact that in the world around us.  But today, I think there is an even more base-line theological point that needs to be made, especially when we think about these two hymns. 

Does God love us “in spite of” or “because of” who we are? 

I think the answer is “sure” but also kind of “neither.”  God loves us because that’s what God is.  Love is the very nature of God, no exceptions. 

As we learned and memorized during VBS a few weeks ago, “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God.  Anyone who loves is born of God and knows God.  Whoever does not love, does not know God, because God is love.”

This may seem like old news.  Maybe you’ve heard and memorized and sung these words a thousand times before, but if you’re anything like me, you might have such an ingrained, subconscious notion of God as something less than love that sometimes you just need to be brought back to this truth.  God is love.  It’s so simple, yet so revolutionary.  God is not some figure in the clouds doling out sun and rain and other necessities of life based on merit or on how hard we repent.  We don’t need to live up to some standard, or pray hard enough, or be good enough in order to be loved by God. 

God rains down love on all people because that’s what God is.  God’s blessings burst forth like fountains because that’s what God does. 

I elevate the tension that I see between our two songs for today not because either one is better than the other.  Both of these songs are expressions of faith born of an awakening to the grace of God’s love.   

Yes, God loves us in spite of our wandering hearts, in spite of the ways we remain ungrateful and wicked, and in spite of the ways we fail to love our enemies.  And when we are awakened to this love, we should sing with loudest praise.

Yes, God loves us because of who we are as God’s good creation.  God loves us when we act just and right and when we find our hope in God.  And when we are awakened to this love, we should sing with loudest praise. 

On the bulletin board above my desk I have a quote by Marcus Borg that I put there because I found it to be so foundational for all the work we do as a Church.  He wrote: “The Christian life is not about believing or doing what we need to believe or do so that we can be saved. Rather, it’s about seeing what is already true — that God loves us already — and then beginning to live in this relationship. It is about becoming conscious of and intentional about a deepening relationship with God.”

Both of these songs are prayers for this kind of awakening, even if they come from different places. 

And so, my wish for us my friends, is:
– That whether we find ourselves in the best of times or the worst of times, in the epoch of belief or the epoch of incredulity, in the Season of Light or the season of darkness, or wherever we may be on this journey of life, that we would be awakened to the love of God that already and always envelops us.
– That this love would rain down and burst forth and stream without ceasing in our lives.
– And finally, that we would become so saturated with this love that we cannot remain the same people we once were but that we would sing and pray and act with an overflow of love for the world around, thus becoming children of the God whose love knows no bounds.