Monday, October 17, 2005

The Amazing Prevenient Grace

The following text is a combination of a talk that I gave at a spiritual retreat (Walk to Emmaus) and then a sermon the following day (10-16-05) at Franklin Grove UMC.

Amazing grace! How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found;
Was blind, but now I see.

Amazing Grace. What is grace? The word grace comes from the Greek word charis, which means 'gift'. And hence the first word in this classic text. Amazing. What is so amazing about grace? Well, it just defies common sense. This is amazing because, if you think about, we are being offered a relationship with God. Little ol us, great big God. This is amazing. It is amazing that God has asked us into the Kingdom. In fact, God created us, with the hope that we would be in God's kingdom through God's grace. Grace is amazing because it is unearnable. It is a free gift given to us by a generous God. That is amazing because few of us, unless we are truly partaking in Christian charity give gifts freely. I'll be honest- I generally give nicer gifts to my brother than I do my sister because my sister generally gives nicer gifts to me than my brother. But God's grace- grace that climaxes in the gift of son Jesus Christ.

As I was typing my notes for this, I found something interesting. Unearnable is not even in the dictionary, let alone MS Word's spell check. Why? Because unearnable is not even in the vocabulary of the world. What do you mean unearnable? I earned everything that I have we can imagine ourselves saying. I then decided to do a Google search of the word 'unearnable'. There is no better way to get a pulse on the culture than to do a Google search. Try this at home. I only glanced at the summaries of the first 50 hits, but every single one of them linked to someone talking about God’s Grace. I think that is why some of us have a hard time getting our heads around what unearnable grace might mean. This must be why Jesus had to use such stark images in his parables and why Paul had to go to exhausting lengths at telling us about faith over works, and why the church has had to have so many painful corrections throughout the years. We simply cannot get our minds around unearnable. But think about it. What could we possibly offer to God? God the almighty, the one who created everything out of nothing. The alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end, the big cheese over all. What could we possibly offer? Well, those who have been in a healthy relationship may know the answer. Love. God created us, God fashioned us in God’s image, and God desires one thing from us. Our love. Love that is forced, love that is manipulated like a giant puppet master is not love at all. So God gave us each wills. God gave each of us free choice. God gave us the opportunity to accept and return God’s love and like any partner in a healthy relationship, God gives us the ability to reject it. To go our own way. Alone. And look to the extremes which God went to in order to offer us the opportunity to enter into relationship.

The way that it is put in the old standard liturgy for communion, "Hear the Good News: Christ died for us while we were yet sinners. This proves God's love toward us. In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven." Now if that is not a sweet sound, I don't know what is. God calls us. God gives us the ability to answer the call. God gives us the means to sustain a healthy and thriving relationship with God. This is what grace is all about. Over the next two days, you will be hearing about this grace. More importantly, I pray that you are awakened to this grace in the fullness that God intends. The first part of this grace, God calling us, theologians call Prevenient Grace. The second part, where God gives us the ability to say yes to the call, is called Justifying Grace. And the gifts to sustain the relationship is called Sanctifying Grace. We will be hearing more about Justifying and Sanctifying Grace later. But I have the honor of sharing the good news about Prevenient Grace. Write this down please. Prevenient Grace is grace that comes before. In other words, there is a gap between humanity and God. For shorthand we call this gap, this falleness from right relationship with God, sin. And the only way we can overcome this gap- the only way we can conquer sin, the only way is through God's grace. Grace is a pre-condition. Grace must happen before the relationship can go on. It is prevenient.

God loves us enough to seek us out.

“I once was lost, but now I am found.”

How was I found? Because God sought me out, that's how. God wooed me. God began courting me from before I was even born. You know, I got a some help from a colleague for this message. She offered suggestions about how I could take theological mumbo-jumbo and make it real through example. So she suggested that I think about how I might have wooed my wife Ann and then compare that to how God woos us. Well the thick headed, slow thinking fool that I can sometimes be thought, well, thats not going to work. I never wooed Ann, we just sort of happened. About 8 years ago, the summer after I went AWOL from the Navy, we started hanging out. We had common friends and it seemed like we always happened to end up at the same places. And then at the end of the summer I said something like, will you go out with me? And Ann said, we already go out all the time- where did you have in mind? No, I mean will you go out with me? She said, well sure. This was amazing. And it didn't take long for me to think, that was a pretty good idea on my part. And then at the end of the year when I was arrested for going AWOL and after a month of being in the brig was finally given visiting rights- Ann brought me homemade spinach calzones. Let me tell you, there is nothing in this world that tastes better than a spinach calzone with a flaky crust and a sweet tomato sauce, and roasted garlic and mushrooms, made with love for a Vegetarian living on bland bread and mushy peas in the brig. Now it was right about this time in my thoughts, as I was preparing my notes, that it occurred to me what I had been missing in the facts of the events. Ann wooed me. I had been wooed and didn't even know it. Here I thought that that I was going along just fine, not having a care in the world and things were happening by my great impulsive decisions and instead, Ann had been wooing me all the time. She had her sites set on me for reasons that only she knows and she wooed me. It was no accident that we were our mutual friends called us both. Nope. Ann had said, on occasion, let's call Karl and see if he will come out. She used other people to help in her wooing me. She waited patiently for me to come to the idea that I should ask her if we could deepen our relationship. And it took an unfortunate incident- something that I was certain no good could out of, for Ann to have the opportunity to demonstrate her love in the shape of a homemade calzone. And it only took me about eight years to figure this out.

This is a little like the love behind prevenient grace. God calls us. God puts us in situations where, if we but open our eyes, we can see God right before us. God uses other people to invite us into relationship, to be Jesus for us. God draws us in close, with the fruits of God's love. And here is the part to write really big on your paper. God empowers us. God empowers through the work of the Holy Spirit.

Now, there are two symbols for the Holy Spirit that are used in the Holy Scriptures. The first is that of a dove. The dove has always been a symbol of freedom and of peace. Therefore, it makes sense that the Holy Spirit, the agent of the only true and lasting freedom and the source of the only true and lasting freedom be depicted as a dove. But there is another description of the Holy Spirit that is just as prevelant, but not mentioned as often in our prayers and liturgies. And that is fire. We read in the book of Acts of how the Holy Spirit descended upon the first disciples like tongues of flame. And this is the image that we cannot lose. This is the image that we cannot ignore. Nikos Kazinakis put it like this... “The Spirit is fire...(that) clamps its talons int the very crown of saints, martyrs, and great strugglers, reducing them to ashes...Wake the fire! That is (our) duty. This is how we collaborate with God.”

Think about fire for a second. That is what the Holy Spirit is like. Think about the recent fires in California. The Bible tells us that the Holy Spirit is somewhat like this. Like a powerful force changing the entire forest as well as the individual trees. Think about a raging prairie fire as it uncontrollably spreads with amazing quickness and completeness. Its awesome isn't it. I think that this is why we hesitate to use fire in our prayers and liturgies. It is too awesome to think about. It is out of our control. There are no four words that we can't bear to hear more than 'out of our control.' There is nothing that fire touches that it doesn't transform. Hear where I am getting? There is nothing that the Holy Spirit touches that it doesn't transform. There is nothing that God's grace touches that it doesn't transform. And that is why it was hard for many of us to come this weekend isn't it. Although I didn't recognize and couldn't articulate it until after my weekend, I was a hesitant to come. I had my excuses about work that needed to be done and whatnot. But the reality is I was afraid of the fire that I sensed that I would encounter. Most of us don't really want our lives changed. We want our lives to stay just as they are. To stay right here in our oblivious comfort thank you very much rather than becoming martyrs, or worse yet, saints. We want to keep the blinders on to be shielded from the power of the flame, the intense light of God's Amazing grace.

But there comes a time sisters and you two brothers when a strange stirring comes creeping into our hearts. A desire, a longing for life, and for life abundantly. If someone has felt this stirring say Amen. Wesley called it prevenient grace. The Grace that comes in and changes who we are from the very core of our being on out. Once we allow this grace to come in, God uses it to make us, to fashion us, to mold us into perfect vessals for Christ's love. Once we allow this grace to come in, our blinders are blown of.

“I was blind, but now I see.” Amen?

This prevenient grace causes our priorities to be reshaped. We see the full humanity in our fellow sisters and brothers and we see the imago dei, the image of God in each of them and in ourselves. We look for the grace that is contained in moments of crisis, moments of tragedy, earthquakes, floods, and personal losses. Events that would have broken us before, are now causes for renewed strength. When we allow God's prevenient grace to reshape us, we are beginning a road where our desires change. Where we offer ourselves in grateful service, not out of obligation or duty, but because we recognize that the more we give, the more we truly receive, Amen? We continue down a path were it is no longer a burden to answer God's call, but our one and only desire.

The scriptures describe it like this.

And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled the house where they were sitting and there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. And they were filled with the Holy Ghost.” Amen?

Sisters and brothers, and I daresay I need to be preaching to myself- but hear this – the time is fast approaching when we need to say yes completely and fully to Jesus Christ. The time is fast approaching when we need to yell out to God set me on fire. I am so tired of compromising. I am so tired of lukewarm living. The time is fast approaching when we need to fish or cut bait. If you feel like you aren't there and you need to pray on it- pray on it. But do not use prayer as an excuse for procrastination. The real beauty of this time set aside in our normal week is that the normal cares and distractions of the world are set aside. So use this time to the fullest. As you continue on this journey, this road to Emmaus, use it as a time of listening and a time of responding to what you hear when you do listen. Use it a time to open yourself to the possibility of leaving an unfulfilled you behind and going out as a new that has life and has it abundantly.

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