The following was delivered as a reflection on a Advent hymn during the Moravian Ministry Association’s worship service for Advent on December 6, 2012:
Our third hymn for reflection this morning was written by James Montgomery. James Montgomery. Born November 4, 1771 in Scotland. The son of Irish parents. Father, a Moravian pastor. When his father and mother heard the Savior’s call to share his love among the enslaved Africans in the West Indies, they placed their son in the care of the Moravian school in Fulneck, England. His parents never returned. When James Montgomery was 12 years old, his mother and his father died suddenly on Island of Tobago.
James Montgomery floundered through the adolescent years that followed. He was a very creative student with a passion for poetry, but his overall scholastic record was quite dismal. From the school in Fulneck, he was sent to serve as an apprentice in a bakery. James Montgomery ran away from this work and the Moravians at the age of fifteen. In the following years, he bounced from job to job, often unemployed and sometimes homeless for weeks at a time.
Somewhere along the way James Montgomery formed a strong sense of what was just and what was fair. Maybe it had something to do with being a young Irishman under the oppressive rule of the English crown. Or maybe it had something to do with his parents, who gave up their lives for men and women held captive by the evil of slavery. Or perhaps it had something to do with the revolutionary spirit in France blowing across the English Channel.
James Montgomery found his vocation at the age of 23. He began work as an editor and later became owner of a radical newspaper in Sheffield, England. He was thrown in jail for printing a poem celebrating the Storming of the Bastille. James Montgomery was jailed a second time for reporting the police brutality used to suppress a local riot. With each release from prison, he picked up his pen to serve once again as a leading social critic of his day. James Montgomery became a popular voice in the English abolitionist movement. He emerged as one of the most passionate critics of dehumanizing child labor. He was endeared by the masses for his advocacy of the poor and the defenseless. And as he matured as a editor, a poet, and great hymn writer, the pen of James Montgomery drew its ink from his great understanding of the life and mission of the Jesus we meet in the Gospels.
In Jesus, he knew a Risen Lord who empowers the church with his active presence. In Christ, he followed the One who began his great movement of peace and goodwill along the shores of Galilee. Galilee. James Montgomery could very easily trace the origins of his activism back to Galilee.
Never thought I’d go to Galilee, where the Jesus Movement, accelerated by James Montgomery, all began. But by God’s grace and generous grant money, I found myself there two summers ago on a pilgrimage with twenty pastors sponsored by the Wake Divinity School. We walked where Jesus walked. Prayed where Jesus prayed. Dipped our toes in the waters that gave birth to the Movement. And then it was time to come home.
Our pilgrimage group was told that security could get a little tense at the Tel Aviv airport. Our group leader said that when we arrived at the airport, a security officer would take him aside, and he would be asked several questions: Where did we go? What did we see? Did anyone give us anything that we are taking home with us? Then, three or four people at a time, the security officer would speak to the rest of our group, asking the same questions to see if our answers would be consistent with his. Where did we go? What did we see? Did anyone give us anything that we are taking home with us?
Now there are many stories out there about pastors and pilgrims who are pulled from the line to be interrogated, sometimes for an hour or more at the Tel Aviv airport. This time we all made it through the questioning okay, but then came the baggage screening. I put my bag on the conveyor belt, and after it passed through the scanner, it was tagged with a yellow sticker. The officer said: You’ll have to take your bag over to that counter.
Oh me… What could it be? My guess was that it was the CPAP I use for my sleep apnea. At least that’s what I hoped. I just didn’t want to be interrogated for two hours. Or… or stripped searched. Or what ever else my imagination said they might do. So I stepped up to the counter a little bit anxious about the whole thing, and at the counter, I was greeted by a young woman with a very pleasant smile. She asked me if I was carrying a large stone in my luggage.
The stone. Ah yes! It was the stone. In my bag I had packed a stone. — A stone about the size of hand grenade. I told the officer I had picked up a stone from the shoreline of the Sea of Galilee. It was a stone I was bringing home from Capernaum. That’s what set off the machine. And she smiled, and said, Okay. Then she pleasantly said I could proceed to the line where I would check my bag to Atlanta.
It was the stone. The stone. And on the way home I got to thinking about that stone. – A stone to help me remember the place where it all began. — The place by the Sea of Galilee where Jesus began to build his kingdom movement. I began thinking about how what this stone represents is much more dangerous to the powers and principalities of the world than even… even a hand grenade. For as God’s peaceful kingdom unfolds, it is led by an anointed Messiah…. One who comes to break oppression. One who comes to set men, women, children free. One who comes to take away transgression. One who comes to rule in equity.
James Montgomery. At the age of forty-two, he returned to the Moravian Church. Then eight years later, he wrote the verses of this hymn for a great gathering of Moravians on Christmas Day, 1821. — Hail to the Lord’s Anointed, a hymn that inspires his church even today.
The Rev. John D. Rights is pastor of Konnoak Hills Moravian Church in Winston-Salem, NC. They will hold Christmas Eve Lovefeast services on Monday, December 24 at 4:00pm and 7:00pm. Nursery is provided and there is a 30-minute band prelude prior to each service.