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September 17, 2015, 9:51 AM

Prevenient Grace

Proverbs 1:20-33, CEB
Wisdom shouts in the street;
    in the public square she raises her voice.
21 Above the noisy crowd, she calls out.
    At the entrances of the city gates, she has her say:
22 “How long will you clueless people love your naïveté,
    mockers hold their mocking dear,
    and fools hate knowledge?
23 You should respond when I correct you.
    Look, I’ll pour out my spirit on you.
    I’ll reveal my words to you.
24 I invited you, but you rejected me;
    I stretched out my hand to you,
    but you paid no attention.
25 You ignored all my advice,
    and you didn’t want me to correct you.
26 So I’ll laugh at your disaster; (Ha!)
    I’ll make fun of you when dread comes over you,
27         when terror hits you like a hurricane,
        and your disaster comes in like a tornado,
        when distress and oppression overcome you.
28 Then they will call me, but I won’t answer;
    they will seek me, but won’t find me
29         because they hated knowledge
        and didn’t choose the fear of the Lord.
30 They didn’t want my advice;
    they rejected all my corrections.
31 They will eat from the fruit of their way,
    and they’ll be full of their own schemes.
32 The immature will die because they turn away;
    smugness will destroy fools.
33 Those who obey me will dwell securely,
    untroubled by the dread of harm.”                                         
Mark 8:27-38, CEB
27 Jesus and his disciples went into the villages near Caesarea Philippi. On the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?”
28 They told him, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, and still others one of the prophets.”
29 He asked them, “And what about you? Who do you say that I am?”
Peter answered, “You are the Christ.” 30 Jesus ordered them not to tell anyone about him.
31 Then Jesus began to teach his disciples: “The Human One[a] must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and the legal experts, and be killed, and then, after three days, rise from the dead.” 32 He said this plainly. But Peter took hold of Jesus and, scolding him, began to correct him. 33 Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, then sternly corrected Peter: “Get behind me, Satan. You are not thinking God’s thoughts but human thoughts.”
34 After calling the crowd together with his disciples, Jesus said to them, “All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me. 35 All who want to save their lives will lose them. But all who lose their lives because of me and because of the good news will save them. 36  Why would people gain the whole world but lose their lives? 37  What will people give in exchange for their lives?38  Whoever is ashamed of me and my words in this unfaithful and sinful generation, the Human One[b] will be ashamed of that person when he comes in the Father’s glory with the holy angels.”
Prevenient Grace
Thursday afternoon our Oneonta District hosted the yearly orientation meeting here in the Embury Room and Fellowship Hall. All district clergy were required to attend, and all lay leaders were invited to come as well. At one point we shared in Holy Communion, forming a large circle around the Fellowship Hall. After we had joined together in the brief liturgy, our district superintendent, Rev. Jan Rowell, and our district lay leader, Anna Buell, served Communion to us, moving from person to person around the circle. Jan encouraged us to lift up songs to join together in singing during this holy time. After all, we are the singing Methodists, it is what we do.
And that is when it got awkward. One person started singing “Sanctuary,” and many knew it and joined in. But then, another person began singing a song I had never heard, and only a few others knew and could sing along, while the rest of us shifted from foot to foot uncomfortably, wondering how there could possibly be a hymn we didn’t know.  And then another unfamiliar song was lifted up, and then another.  We need, across our denominations and generations, to teach our songs to one another. (Our District is offering such an opportunity on September 26 in Cobleskill as I mentioned during announcements)
Finally, someone started singing deeply familiar words, …”Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a” whole bunch of United Methodists! The relief in the room was almost palpable, the comfort of familiar and beloved words.
“Amazing Grace” is a comfort. We sing these beautiful words at funerals, during times of stress and difficulty, when we are gathered in worship. We listen to them on recordings from a variety of artists across the years. “When we’ve been here ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun…” This hymn is a comfort. Its words—“sweet,” “save,” “lost and found”—whisper of gentleness, softness. The song is a loving caress, a musical hug for our souls. However, that is not how the song got its start, and its author, John Newton, had experiences with God that were anything but sweet, soft or comforting.
Newton had a rough teen and young adult life. When he was finally rescued from an abusive situation in Sierra Leone by a friend of his father, he took up the position of a sea captain on a slave ship in the 1740s and 50s. He was not raised with a religious education and in his own records he speaks of his conversion to Christ as happening on May 10, 1748. He speaks of God getting his attention through a violent storm that almost took his ship and his life, and starting him on the path of faith. Amazing grace, but not gentle. Through a series of experiences with the divine Newton moved from the life of a sea captain to the life of a priest in the Church of England. He composed hundreds of hymns, of which Amazing Grace was penned as a sermon illustration and a personal narrative. By the end of his life, he had become the person we would imagine writing this beloved hymn, but along the way his encounters with God and God’s amazing grace were a little rough. Grace was not usually gentle with Newton, but it was always present, right where he was, seeking him, reaching out for him, pursuing him, until he turned to reach for grace.
At first glance, amazing grace seems to have little to do with our scripture readings for today. Jesus is abrupt and confrontational—not appearing terribly grace-filled—as he addresses Peter, the disciples, and the crowd. “Get behind me, Satan! You are not setting your mind on God’s thoughts, but on human thoughts!” “If anyone wants to come after me, they must pick up their cross and follow me.” All this talk of losing your life—some hard words. And then there is Woman Wisdom…she is not happy! Is there grace here? Absolutely! There is grace all over the place!
Woman Wisdom is a personification of an aspect of God, a little like the Holy Spirit. She speaks for God. She is knowledge of God, relationship with God, God’s way of living and being in the world. She is that which all God’s beloved people should be longing for, seeking out, pursuing. We should be growing in Wisdom. But that is not what is happening. Wisdom has come out of the religious centers. She has left the Temple precinct. Why? No one is seeking her. No one is pursing Wisdom. So, Wisdom has come to seek and to pursue God’s people. She has come looking for us.
John Wesley had a term for this. He coined a name for God seeking us until we turn and seek God. John called it Prevenient Grace—that grace that is reaching for us before we even know to reach for it. Woman Wisdom is embodying God’s prevenient grace…but why is she so angry?
Spending some time with Woman Wisdom these last few weeks reminded me of something that happened during the Baltimore riots. Following the death of Freddie Gray, the city of Baltimore erupted into riots, which became increasingly violent. A mother watching the riots on the TV at home suddenly recognized her son in the crowd. Caught on multiple cell phones, this mother traveled down to the rioting crowds, found her son, and began knocking him side of the head and screaming at him, finally chasing him down and dragging him out.
Now I’m not going to critique parenting choices, but I want us to take a moment and stand in her shoes.
            Why are people rioting? Because a young black man is dead.
            Why did she go down to the riots? Because her son, a black youth, was in the midst of a violent
            What emotions probably prompted her to risk herself in the riot to retrieve her son?
            What other emotions were fueling her anger and her outburst?
Though we might come to different actions and conclusions ourselves, I believe we can understand the love and fear that drove her actions and anger.
Can we see some of the same in Woman Wisdom? Scripture has given us this beautiful personification, do we see God using human emotions to convey the urgency, the criticalness of Wisdom’s work? Proverbs also says, in another chapter, that fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. But, can we also ask, does God fear for us? As God, through Wisdom’s eyes, sees us pursuing everything but God’s Wisdom is God afraid for us? God’s love for us is beyond our understanding. God’s love for us takes form in Jesus to walk among us, die on a cross and rise from the dead.
Can we say that Wisdom’s anger is Wisdom’s desperation to turn us back to God. She sees us being lost to the world, becoming vulnerable to despair. She knows that life has its ups and downs and everything in between. She knows that disaster hovers nearby. What will happen to God’s beloved people when the storms of life happen, when we are tossed to and fro, and we’ve left our anchor behind? How will we weather the hurricanes and tornados of life without the Rock beneath us? And so Wisdom leaves the Temple of the sacred and enters the hallways of the everyday—making them sacred by her very presence. She comes seeking, pursuing, reaching out, until we hear and turn and seek her—Prevenient Grace! Amazing Grace!
Wisdom seeks us where we are, where God wants us to be growing in wisdom, in our every day. Wisdom seeks us in the marketplace…Hannaford, Price Chopper, Southside Mall. Wisdom seeks us in the streets…Main Street, Chestnut Street, our street. Wisdom seeks us at our centers…Fox Hospital, the Foothills, SUNY Oneonta, Hartwick, Oneonta Middle and High School, Riverside, Greater Plains, Valley View…
Wisdom seeks us urgently, desperately, frantically, because…Jesus has asked us a question, praying we have the wisdom to answer—Who do you say that I am?—and we must answer with all that we are:
            our work and school selves
            our play and extracurricular activities selves
            our home selves
            our out-running-errand selves
            ALL of who we are!
Everything, absolutely everything, we do and say and live proclaims who God in Jesus is for us. What message are you living this week?
Wisdom is shouting in the streets; in Muller Plaza she raises her voice.  Above the noisy crowded hallways of Oneonta High School she calls out. In front of city hall she has her say.
“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.”

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