Our opening hymn this morning came about at the insistence of Caleb Winchester, who was the editor of the 1905 Methodist Hymnal. He challenged Frank North, an ordained Methodist minister, to write a hymn text on city missions. Life for many in the cities in the late 1800’s was far from easy. Frank, himself, had served pastorates in the inner city of New York and later took on the role of Correspondence Secretary of the New York City Church Extension and Missionary Society. First published in 1905, it is recognized as one of the earliest and finest modern “city hymns.” The text focuses on the ills of our great urban centres with the insight and compassion of a Christian worker in the city slums. North’s descriptive phrases were no doubt startling at the turn of the century, but they continue to be accurate descriptions of the conditions so many people face in the inner parts of our many of our cities to this day. While describing the situation of so many so graphically, he also encourages those of us who are followers of Christ to step into the shoes of the Master and bring the good news of the gospel in word and deed. The message remains relevant even in our time and will no doubt remain so until the return of our Lord.
Even in our day and age, we hear so many stories of how difficult life is in the inner city areas of our world. We find people separated by language, culture, race and religion. We find people coming into contact with people from varied backgrounds and often struggling to figure out how to live in harmony. Add to that the struggle to find employment and to provide for their families as well as finding a safe place to raise their families, we can certainly identify with the thoughts being expressed in this hymn.
In the midst of human suffering, the author says, we will catch the vision of the tears of God. Too often it is believed by people that God cannot exist because of the suffering in the world or that God is present but unmoved by the suffering. But if we examine the record of God as passed to us by those who came before us, we will note that God ever is pained by the suffering of humanity and ever seeks to relieve it but chooses to do so not in an autocratic way but in partnership with those who by their own free will have accepted his will and commandments as the pattern for their lives and have committed themselves to being part of the mission of bringing peace and reconciliation to the world and its people.
Wherever there is a helpless child, wherever a woman expresses grief, wherever a man feels the burden of life, where souls are hungry, where sorrow brings stress, the heart of God has never drawn back. In the midst of the angst of humanity, God’s grace is ever fresh and ready. The world still longs to see the sweet compassion of God’s face; but the author knows that the face they will see before God’s is ours and so while he urges God to make haste to heal these hearts of pain, he is seeking for us to learn what the love of God truly is and so follow where God’s feet have trod; and to continue to do so until the time shall come when the city of God shall be established once and for all.
Our Family Hymn today was written by Sarah Rhodes, the wife of a merchant in Sheffield, England for a Sunday School Union Whitsuntide Festival in 1870. She also composed the tune. Unfortunately no more is known of her or anything else she may have penned.
The challenge to respond to the plight of humanity in general, and of those whom we encounter in our daily lives can be somewhat overwhelming. In the midst of this, we need to never lose sight of the fact that God cares for each of us. This lovely hymn by Sarah reflects on all the things that God has taken the time to create – the earth, the air, the sky, the sea, the grass, the flower, the fruit, the tree, the sun, the moon, and the stars we see. God gave light its birth, made day and night to pass, sees life’s clouds and changes the seasons. Yet in spite of all this, God still cares for you and me. In the great scheme of things, we are of little consequence to the world but in the eyes of God, each of us matters. To God who notes the fall of every sparrow whom most of us could never tell the difference between one or the other, God cares for each one of us - a wonderful message to bring us peace and hope.
And that brings us to our closing hymn that was written by Robert Walmsley. Robert was a Congregationalist. For 28 years he was connected with the work of the Manchester Sunday School Union as a layperson. A jeweller by trade, he published 44 of his hymns in a collection entitled “Sacred Songs for Children of all Ages.” His hymns are simple, musical, a celebration of the works of God in nature and of a deep desire to communicate a love of God to all children.
Come let us sing of a wonderful love is an invitation for each of us to not only know the love of God but to celebrate it. He begins by reminding us that the love of God streams from the Father in heaven to each and every one and that as much as that love streams to us, it never runs out but is ever renewed in the heart of God.
In the person of Jesus, God made that love as real as he could possibly make it. Robert reminds us that the Gospel, the good news, was brought to all people but especially to those who felt helpless and hopeless. Jesus shared their sorrow and shame. He sought for everyone who felt lost and alone to save and redeem their life and restore to them the joy of life itself.
And Jesus continues to seek for those who are wandering. Robert wonders why people still roam searching for peace, for forgiveness, for hope. Love only waits to forgive and forget so home, weary wanderers home. Perhaps our desire to be perfect in the eyes of God has blinded us to the real purpose for our communities. We are to be a place in this world where people can come for hope, for healing, for peace, for forgiveness. Paul’s injunction to make peace with each other before taking communion was not meant to say we needed to be perfect but rather that we were willing to acknowledge our imperfection and seek to be reconciled with one another and so be able to accept the grace offered by God through Jesus Christ.
In the final stanza, Robert prays for that love of God to come and abide with him. And that is what he hopes each of us will pray for so that our lives can be lifted above envy and falsehood and pride. So may we ever seek to be, lowly and humble, a learner of God.