Rev. Debra Jene Collum
Chatfield United Methodist Church
July 14, 2013
As United Methodist’s we believe in a very strange doctrine called Prevenient grace. It is actually not the doctrine that is strange but the name: Prevenient grace. The doctrine is beautiful and comforting to most people.
Prevenient grace means that we believe God’s grace goes before us. That wherever we find ourselves, God’s grace has already been there and indeed resides there. It is like the Psalm which says, “I cannot go away from your presence, even if I make my bed in hell, God, you are there.”
One of my favorite children’s book is a classic children’s story by the author of Goodnight Moon, Margaret Wise Brown. Young bunny asks his mother what she would do if he ran away. Mother bunny replies that no matter where young bunny journeyed she seek him out using what ever means possible.
If he sprouted wings and flew away, she would become a tree so that he would have a home to fly into.
If he became a rock on a mountain, she would become a mountain climber.
When I use this as a children’s sermon I will ask the children how this story reminds them of God. I usually hear the ‘right’ responses: God will always find us no matter where we go. But one young girl said: You might as well not leave because God’s going to find you anyway.
Well that is kinda like Prevenient grace. No matter where we go even if we don’t want it, God is there.
Now it is important for us to understand this because if we do belief this then we truly do agree with the psalmist: we can go no where, even to the depths of hell, without the presence of God with us.
There is nothing that separates you from God’s presence.
This can give us courage to go anywhere. We know that God will be there before us and somehow we will meet God.
I grew up with a believe system that believed that we were surrounded by evil. That everyone was suspect and every situation was fraught with the potential for destruction. As you can imagine, this created a deep level of mistrust in me.
As a person of faith now, I see the wonderful possibilities in each situation. Because each new situation gives me the opportunity to see God at work in the world.
Now I am not an eternal optimist. I deal with lots of awful situations in my work and in my life. However, I no longer look at these as primarily the work of Satan, or evil or sin. While these things are definitely at work in the world and need to be acknowledged; now I see that these are the places where God’s grace can be and is present to out shine the ugliness and darkness.
In our gospel reading today, God’s presence and grace is seen in an entirely unexpected way. The one person who would seemingly not be considered justified by God’s grace and God’s standards is the very person through whom the presence of God is experienced in abundance.
The expert in the Law who asked Jesus the question: “how will I receive eternal life?” truly didn’t expect this. As all of us who grew up or have been nurtured in a religious environment, he was expecting Jesus to simply reaffirm his preconceived notions. Well your neighbor is anyone who keeps the law like you do and goes to temple like you do and at whose table you can eat. These are the people you should minister to, be concerned about, and share your resources with.
Neighbors are never identified as enemies.
But Jesus teaches a different perspective. God’s grace is in the places you least expect it.
In the life and actions of a despised, despicable and one who is named enemy and outcast, a Samaritan. Prevenient grace.
In Jesus world enemies are identified as neighbors.
Hear that again: in Jesus’ world enemies are identified as neighbors.
Puts a different perspective on the situation in the world, doesn’t it?
Now let us broaden this even more.
In Jesus’ world enemies are those persons through which God’s grace is revealed in the world.
People, who we would normally not think of as people in league with God, are the ones through whom God can and does work.
And according to the scriptures those who do the works of God are the justified ones.
Not those who have the best understanding of the law or who have studied enough to be considered professionally learned religious.
Those who do the works of God are the ones who are justified.
And notice, the Samaritan isn’t doing God’s work because he believes he must in order to be good.
The Samaritan didn’t help the wounded traveler hoping he would get some kind of reward or jewels in his crown.
There is no mention of promised afterlife or a prosperous future.
The Samaritan simply does what any decent human being would do. And thereby he is given the extraordinary name: neighbor.
As in Love your Neighbor as Yourself.
And thereby he is the one who fulfills the commandments.
Do you see how this upsets all the debates we have about who is justified?
What must I do to be saved?
How do I know if this is a neighbor or an enemy?
Those aren’t the right questions.
The question is: how do I see and participate in the work of God in the world?
How do I see and participate in the actual working out of the great commandment:
Love the Lord your God and Love your Neighbor as Yourself.
I was once with a group of theologians from around the world. We were discussing how God is at work in the midst of the Empires of the world. Those from India gave heartbreaking examples of what the Empire was doing to the citizens of India who didn’t fit into the system because of their class and caste.
Women were being raped indiscriminately, young boys were being rounded up and shot in the head randomly, and family’s livelihoods were being stolen and corrupted.
Who was being the neighbor to these people? Who was speaking out for their cause?
The Indian theologians were sorry to say that it was not the church. It was secular organizations that ran the risk of losing funding and support that were staging protests, writing to people in authority and aiding the victims of violence.
The theologians testified that the Spirit and Power of God was being seen in the secular agencies of India that had no religious ties or even ambitions.
It was in those we least expect that the Prevenient grace of God is present. In India and in the USA we can look out our windows everyday and see God’s grace present in the world. We just have to learn to put aside our own expectations and preconceived notions so that we can see Prevenient Grace Happen.
And thereby notice our neighbors.