Prevenient Grace

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Mark 1: 29-39


The phrase, ‘prevenient grace’, a favorite of John Wesley’s, identifies God’s grace as active prior to our awareness, prior to our acceptance, prior to our engagement, prior to our knowledge, prior to our own conscious response.  This grace comes to us, comes toward us.

We think of ourselves as marching forward, into the future.  And well we might, and well we should.  But grace is the future coming toward us, marching into us, toward us.  It is incursive, it is incarnate.  It is invasive.  It is coming toward us.

The cosmic apocalyptic theological perspective which shapes our Gospel of Mark is not our own.  Beelzebub—not a family name.  Children of light and of darkness—not the way we define the world.  The end time, the last days, the day of the Lord—not our primary religious or personal lexicon.  Satan—not a ready or readily understood figure.  The cosmic apocalyptic theological perspective which shapes St. Mark does not shape us.

But one part of it does, or should.  Time is coming toward us.  The future is settling in on us.  It is not we who march forward into time so much as it is time marching toward, into, through and past us.  There it goes…

Healing on the Sabbath, for an individual, out among a whole city, and in the pastures of prayer.  Coming right at us, like a..

What similes, metaphors, analogies come to mind today, about the future descending upon us?  Like a…

Like a linebacker vaulting into the pocket, or a punt descending out of the sky, or a kickoff falling earthward, or a return team moving to tackle, or an hour of contest approaching. ()

The future is coming toward us.  That part of cosmic apocalyptic we can readily receive, if we will pivot just a bit.

Prevenient carries a sense of coming before, of preparing, of guiding.  Prevenient grace finds us when we are not expecting to be found, or to find.   Prevenient grace enters the home, through the front door.  This grace attends to the needs of the identified patient in the family.  Then prevenient grace flings open the door to the home and gathers the whole community, to heal the sick and cast out demons.  An early grace reaches us and reminds us that who we are is connected to where we are.

And what comes toward us?  Grace, in seven servings: baptism, a name in a church; confirmation, a faith in a tradition; eucharist, a morsel in a community; ordination, a calling in a context; marriage, a partnership in a pattern; forgiveness, a pardon in a gathering; unction, an eternal hope in an historical experience.  What comes toward us?  Prevenient grace.

Prevenient Grace:  Personal

Said John Calvin:  Now the evangelists seem to have narrated this miracle with some emphasis, not for being in itself more distinguished than the others, or more deserving to be remembered, but because in it Christ gave a homely and closer example of his grace to his disciples…The healing of one woman gave him the opportunity for many miracles (Commentary, loc.cit.)

Our gospel ends in prayer.  But the two healings of the narrative buttress each other.  The first, the healing of Peter’s mother, comes to an individual.  The second, attested in odd combinations of words—all, many, all, many, the whole—distributes the healing to the community.  Jesus is moving toward his hearers, and toward us, now to the individual, now to the culture at large.  His preparation is showing the way to personal and social holiness.  They go together.  Holiness of heart depends on holiness of life.  Where we are affects who we are.  As Ortega memorably put it, “Yo soy you y mis circunstancias”—I am myself and my circumstances.

There is a spirit of health loose in the universe, a spirit of healing, touching persons and pervading communities.  We do well to attend to the eruptions of health, in our place and time.

Peter was married.  I’m just sayin… You acquire a mother in law in a time honored fashion.  Did you notice that Simon has a mother in law?  That must mean… Simon is no longer out on the beach with Andrew, free and easy, as he was just two Sundays ago.  He has a home, he has a family, he has an extended family.  Behind every great religious leader is a surprised mother in law.  That is, Simon was married.  Peter was married.  I am not camping out on this verse.  I don’t plan to stay here for the whole sermon and build a campfire and dwell forever on the domestic details of Peter, the rock on whom the church was built.  I’m just saying…

Never doubt that a few people, a teacher and two sets of brothers for example, can change things.

How we live makes a difference to others.  In particular, this Lent, we shall meditate on how we cyberlive.  Every half hour we are making choices in our means and mode of discourse, to enhance toward human being our way of being, or to degrade our way of being from human being.  Technology is not neutral.  It is a complex of choices.  And yes, we choose, but we do not choose our choices.

Notice some of the detail in this holy, inspired, inspiring passage.  Matthew leaves out the prayer scene, in his use of Mark, and Luke retains it.  Why?  Simon’s mother in law is singled out, without others from the family named.  Why?  The demons again know Jesus and again are silenced.  A  bigger, Why?  The crowd comes to healing at sundown.  To respect the Sabbath?  But Jesus has already healed on the Sabbath (see last week), and again with Simon’s mother in law. So, Why? How alike are healings and exorcisms?  And the word for city is really town\city, komepolis: ‘not just a select few, but the whole city’ is gathered for healing.  There is a broad human longing well represented here. It is our longing, too.  Jesus ‘comes forward/out’ in order to preach. Jesus and his opponents are engaged in battle over disputed territory.  Mark is the book of secret epiphanies.

We remember best what is most personal.  So, still, 20 centuries later, the most important aspect of pastoral ministry, the sermon aside, is every week the 25 visits one makes to listen to the faithful:  at work, in town, at home, in hospital, on the phone, on the screen, all.  Your job is threefold:  visit the people, visit the people, visit the people.

How I miss Peter Gomes.  I miss his voice, his presence, his grace.  But you remember his admonition about ministry.  You ask me the secret of my success in ministry at Harvard over forty years?  I give it to you in a single word: ubiquity.  I am everywhere.  I go everywhere.  I attend everything.  I enter every building and dorm.  I walk through every yard and hill and valley and molehill.  I go where I am invited.  I go where I am not invited.  I go where I am expected.  I go where I am not expected. Surprise!  It’s me.  You ask my secret?   I give it to you in a word: ubiquity.  I am ubiquitous.

Would you practice, enjoy and master ministry?  Remember that word.

Prevenient Grace:  Social

Said John Wesley:  And the whole city was gathered together at the door. O what a fair prospect was here!  Who could then have imagined that all these blossoms would die away without fruit?…Rising a great while before day…So did he labor for us both day and night…From this time they forsook their employ and constantly attended him.  Happy they who follow Christ at the first call. (Notes, loc. cit.)

Every now and then, upon a quiet morning or evening, we have an awareness that a lot more is going on, in and among and around us than we often recognize.
One leader from our area encouraged his colleagues: “The work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, the dream shall never die”
We need such a social imagination:  a common faith with Dewey, a common ground with Thurman, a common hope with Hill, a commonwealth in the Bay State.  We need such a robust social imagination, a social holiness to yoke with a personal holiness.  Proust:  ‘How could I be expected to believe in a common origin uniting two names which had entered my consciousness, one through the low and shameful gate of experience, and the other by the golden gate of imagination?” (RTP, 676)
Our personal healing relies on our social healing.  The employment of one worker requires the health of the company, and beyond that the health of the community.  Listen to this leading voice from 1988: ‘we have vastly underestimated how deeply ingrained are the organizational and cultural rigidities that hamper our ability to execute…structures that repel top talent…we evaded relentless focus on quality’ (a GM executive)

The poor now receive some comment in our hearing, across our land.  This is to our benefit, though our lack of memory and the capacity to imagine what poverty feels like weakens our effort.  We need to recall our parents and grandparents accounts of potato soup during the depression.  We need to remember the reports on homeless children, living today in cars in central Florida.  We need to take to heart the account of the daughter of university professors now living as a single mother in Chicago and saying, ‘I have fallen out of the middle class’.  We need to think about the couple in western Maine without heating oil, depending on the electric stove and an income of $1,200 a month (NYT, 2/4/12)

Blessed St. Chrysostom could teach us about the poor: ours for them should be a just, useful, and suitable intercession…the rich need the poor:  the poor are necessary for the spiritual well being of the rich…your brother is more truly God’s temple than any church building…show a natural compassion…it will make you more humane for your own salvation…enjoy luxury in moderation, then give the rest away…some are sent out to be dependent upon the hospitality of others;  theirs is the ministry of the mendicant…the sign of the mendicant church calls forth generosity…serve the poor under all conditions and circumstances…the poor are the bearers of God’s spirit in a way that the rich are not…all goodness in the world is a reflection of God’s grace…

We might remember Border Parker Bowne:  ‘I am determined to protect the independence and variety of experience’.

And Martin Luther King:  Love: that force which all the great religions have known…somebody must have religion enough to cut hate off…redemptive good will toward all humankind…a love centric view is what we need (MLK)

As a nation we don’t learn from the past and we don’t plan for the future:  we are persons in community!  The person and who she is depends and the community and what it is.  We need to remember: Human dignity requires the love of ideals for their own sake, but nothing requires that the love will be requited (S Nieman).  For our most diffucult work and for most perilous projects (Niehdl?) we most need:  moral governance, transparency, self-critique, regard for the poor, and continuous leadership and group discussions.


Let us pray (a prayer from Vatican II):
We stand before you Holy Spirit
Conscious of our weakness and sinfulness
But aware that we gather in your name

Come to us, remain with us,
And enlighten our hearts.

Give us light and strength
To know your will,
Make it our own,
And to live it in our lives.

Guide us by your wisdom,
Support us by your power
For you are God.

You desire justice for all:
Enable us to uphold the rights of others;
Do not allow us to be misled by ignorance
Or corrupted by fear or favor.

Unite us to yourself in the bond of love
And keep us faithful to all that is true.

As we gather in your name
May we temper justice with love
So that all our decisions
May be pleasing to you
And be worthy of the reward
Promised to good and faithful servants.

You live and reign with the Father and the Son,
One God, forever and ever.

~The Reverend Dr. Robert Allan Hill,
Dean of Marsh Chapel

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