First Movement

Sunday, January 21, 2018

 

A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC, January 21, 2018, the third Sunday after the Epiphany. “Grace Notes” sermon series.

Texts: 1 John 4:7-12, 16b-21Mark 1:14-20

 

If God
Invited you to a party
And said,

‘Everyone
In the ballroom tonight
Will be my special
Guest...’

How would you then treat them
When you
Arrived?

Indeed, indeed!

 

And [I know]
There is no one in this world

Who
Is not upon
[God’s] Jeweled Dance
Floor.[i]

 

These are words of 14th century Sufi mystic poet, Hafiz who captures in a few imaginative lines a core belief of our Wesleyan spiritual tradition. Namely, everyone in the world “dances” in God’s presence.  Or perhaps better stated, God is the ground of our being, without whom we could not stand, much less dance.  St. Paul once described this reality to the Athenians, using the words of their own poets, saying “in God we live, move, and have our being.” (Acts 17:28)

 

We believe this is true even if you’re too young or infirm to mentally understand it, even you’ve never heard the word “God” or the name Jesus, even if you’ve actively rejected the name Jesus, even if you’ve done selfish, hurtful things. No matter what, we believe that the loving presence of God saturates all creation and is with every person. We can ignore or reject God’s loving presence, but “There is no one in this world/Who/Is not upon/God’s Jeweled Dance/Floor.”  We dwell in God, surrounded by God’s grace.

 

United Methodists are not alone in this belief, sharing it with many other Christian “tribes,” but it is a particular emphasis in our understanding of the way God’s grace works.  John Wesley, the spiritual architect of Methodism, described the experience of God’s grace in three movements—kind of like the “movements” of a formal musical composition—distinct, but related to one another, beautiful as individual pieces, but only complete when taken together.  The first movement is what we call “prevenient grace,” literally the grace that comes before—before we know to desire it, before we know we need it, before we realize we’ve received it. It is God’s presence awakening us to the reality of a “more” in life, to a need to shift course, nudging us in the direction of greater love and compassion, drawing us toward the beauty of God’s wisdom and way.  Wesley understood prevenient grace as the beginning of God’s saving work, “the beginning of a deliverance from a blind, unfeeling heart ...”[ii]

 

As I prepared for today, I was delighted to discover one of my predecessor’s sermons on this topic online.  Rev. Dean Snyder reminded me that John Wesley’s favorite verse when he preached about prevenient grace was John 1:9:  “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.”  The true light enlightens everyone.  “Every [one] has a greater or less measure of this,” Wesley said. Christian and non-Christian alike, he said.[iii]  “There is no [one],” he said, “except [those] who have quenched the Spirit, [who] is wholly void of the grace of God.”[iv]

Today’s Gospel is a Christian “classic,” a familiar story for those who’ve been knocking around church for a while. It is Mark’s telling of Jesus calling his first disciples.  I have often heard this story used as an evangelism story, picking up on Jesus saying, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.”  Fishing for people can sound pretty unappealing to our ears these days.  After all, hooks can do damage and nets don’t set people free. And who among us wants to get wounded or “caught”?  I don’t doubt that part of the call of the disciples is to share the good news of God love with others. But the idea that this story primarily teaches that followers of Jesus are supposed to go get those people who aren’t in church and haul them “in” misses what I believe to be the beauty at the heart of the text.

 

In this story, we see Jesus draw near to folks who never would have imagined that they would be invited to step into a new way of life.  The way things worked in those days is that if you were a boy with the brains and skill, you’d get to be a disciple of one of the rabbis, following and learning from them.  The fact that Simon, Andrew, James, and John were all busy fishing means their scores hadn’t qualified them for the honor of apprenticeship to a rabbi.  They’d been sent home to spend the rest of their lives in the fishing business.  That was their lot. The fishing vocation wasn’t without honor or meaning, but they certainly weren’t looking for a rabbi.  Jesus found them. 

 

I often hear people talk about how they’ve “found” God or “found” Jesus.  Our understanding of prevenient grace means that this is never the way it works.  Just as Jesus is the one who draws near to the disciples before they knew such a relationship was possible, God’s grace makes the first move in our awakening to God’s love. As it is written in 1 John 4:19, “We love because God first loved us.” Hymn number 341 in our United Methodist Hymnal describes this beautifully.

I sought the Lord, and afterward I knew
He moved my soul to seek Him, seeking me.
It was not I that found, O Savior true;
No, I was found of Thee.

I find, I walk, I love, but oh, the whole
Of love is but my answer, Lord, to Thee!
For Thou were long beforehand with my soul,
Always Thou lovest me.[v]

 

// It seems to me that Jesus talks about “fishing for people” not because it is the perfect metaphor to describe the job description of Jesus’ disciples across all time, but because he was, in that moment, talking to fisherfolk.  Here, Jesus reveals the way God comes to us right where we are, in whatever circumstance we are in, and speaks our language to try to make a connection, to relate to us in a way that helps us receive the message. This is grace at work, connecting, drawing us more deeply toward God—not to trick us or limit our freedom or life, but to set us free to live more fully.

 

Jesus beckons the first disciples to join him on a journey, a journey in which they would spend their time not primarily with fish, but with people.  They were called not only to participate in the local economy as part of their family business, but to share in the work of God’s saving love.  They were drawn away from mending fishing nets, and into the mending of all creation that Jesus came to initiate. 

 

It’s not that Simon, Andrew, James, and John didn’t know God, it’s that God wanted to know them more and in a new way.  There’s a difference between knowing that there is a God and knowing God.  Prevenient grace is at work when someone who’s been just going through the motions of faith or of life suddenly wakes up and desires more.  Prevenient grace is at work when someone is on a destructive path and begins to make a turn toward healing.  Prevenient grace is at work when a vision of beauty or compassion sparks someone unfamiliar or hostile to faith to wonder about God.  And what we see in this story is that God draws near even when we’re not looking for God; God wants to share life and ministry not only with those who are deemed the smartest or most accomplished, but with folks from all walks of life—wherever they are on the journey. The good news is that all have a place in God’s Kin-dom, all have the opportunity to live in the freedom of God’s love, mercy, and justice and to share that with others, all have purpose and gifts to contribute to the work of mending and new creation.

 

I see our Gospel story as a beautiful illustration of God’s prevenient grace, a story of the way God appears, calls, reaches out, and shines the light of God’s love in order to help people step more fully into their lives.  Sometimes that grace will be at work in the lives of those who are already aware of God; other times, it will move to awaken persons to divine love for the very first time.  God’s prevenient grace won’t always prompt leaving home and family.  It may not result in an “immediate” response in every life.  But when you become aware of God’s loving presence, you will begin to sense there’s a choice to be made.  God always makes the first move toward us and invites some response—whether through the beauty of the world or its pain and brutality, through a still, small voice, or the booming voice of a prophet, through the familiar rhythms of home or the call of the wild blue yonder, through the pangs of guilt or the experience of reconciliation—God always beckons us, wants (as I say every week) an ever deeper relationship with us. And the more we respond to God’s drawing near, the more we respond to God’s love toward us, as we take even a small step toward God and God’s invitation to a new vision of the world and of ourselves, our lives will change one way or another.

 

This past week, I spent two full days with the Baltimore-Washington Conference Board of Ordained Ministry as we examined new candidates for ordained ministry.  Listening to candidates’ stories, I was again struck by the varieties of ways that God’s grace works in persons’ lives to wake them up to the call to greater life, service, love, and justice.  And I was reminded of the twists and turns on the journey, of how God’s grace attends us all along the way, moving with us as we travel. Prevenient grace is the first movement in God’s love song, it is what draws us onto the path or redirects and reenergizes our walk. God’s prevenient grace makes the first move toward us, inviting us to look around and see that we are already standing in God’s light, that we are God’s beloved, special guests, standing upon God’s jeweled dance floor.  Everyone is there with you.  Everyone.  So why not take the hand of a neighbor and begin dancing?

 

 

 

 

 

[i] Hafiz, The Gift, Trans. Daniel Ladinsky, Penguin Compass, 1999, p. 47.

[ii] Albert C. Outler and Richard P. Heitzenrater, Editors, John Wesley's Sermons: An Anthology, Abingdon Press, p. 488.

[iii] 3. Kenneth J. Collins, The Scripture Way of Salvation: The Heart of John Wesley’s Theology, Abingdon Press, p. 39.

[iv] Collins, p. 39.

[v] “I Sought the Lord,” Anon., United Methodist Hymnal, The United Methodist Publishing House, 1989, p. 341.