“Grace, Grace, Grace! This Weekend … At the Fairgrounds” Luke for Lent Part 1
Luke 15:11-24; Luke 15:25-32
The Reverend Phillip Blackburn
February 18, 2018
In the Oklahoma City of the 1980s and early 90s, the fairgrounds were where it was at. It seemed as if every week there were some sort of big event happening down there and one of my most vivid memories was of the giant sales that would happen there. Radio ads would trumpet the latest deals, at the fairgrounds. All the ads were the same in style and my favorite was the one for baby clothes. It would go, “BABY CLOTHES, BABY CLOTHES, BABY CLOTHES, THIS WEEKEND…AT THE FAIRGROUNDS!!!!” As if I didn’t know just from the tone of voice where the giant baby clothes sale was going to be; the fairgrounds. But here is the thing about those sales, everyone in town, or at least in my world, knew the stuff was junk. Stores would take all their surplus baby clothes, the stuff that nobody else wanted, they would rent out a pavilion at the fairgrounds, buy a few bucks worth of radio commercials and, boom, they would clear their inventory. Just like that. You can never trust a sale at the fairgrounds.
I feel in many ways as if the American Church has taken grace down to the fairgrounds and put it on sale. We tell everyone one how great and abundant it is. We talk about how it washes over us and restores our relationship with God. And we proudly proclaim that to have Jesus is to have grace. And don’t get me wrong, I believe all those things, but by and large, the American church has constructed a form of grace that is broken, and we can see this all over our nation these days. I am deeply troubled by a number of things I see around us in the culture of American Christianity and few of them are more troubling to me than the way we have cheapened grace and placed it on the sale table at the fairgrounds.
So what do I mean by this? I mean that we have made grace easy and abundant for most people, and then we have made it impossible to get for other people. We have basked in the glow of it ourselves while denying that others, whom we may not like, should have it at all. The consequence of the cheapness of the grace being peddled around our nation is the worst type of tribalism, where grace resides freely and abundantly in a given congregation or denomination but is obviously absent in the lives of those who fail to abide by the narrow and often artificial rules of that tribe. To prove my point, all you need to do is look at Facebook. A friend sent me a post she saw this week, and it captures the problem perfectly. The banner screams, “Are you involved in witchcraft and don’t even know it? Do you do the following?” Then there is an arrow pointing down at a list of witchcraft related practices including but not limited to yoga, dream catchers, horoscope, Halloween, and my personal favorite, fortune cookies. Finally, the post concludes, “If so, stop, it’s all witchcraft. Repent, and come back to Christ.”
This is my point. In the life of the person who posted that, Christ’s grace is abundant, but for the one who joyfully reads their fortune cookie after lunch at the Green Papaya, hell awaits. There is no grace. The cheapest grace, you see, the type they sell at the fairgrounds is this type of grace. I will call it older brother grace, which we heard about this morning. The older brother is an important figure in the story of the prodigal son. Since this is one of the most preached about passages in all of Scripture, there is a lot of information about it, and I have heard some great sermons on this passage. One time I heard that the perspective one takes when preaching this passage depends on the denomination. For evangelical churches, the younger brother is the focus, but for mainline churches the focus is often the older brother. For this reason, I have almost always focused on the younger, because, you know, I have to be different, but not today.
The older brother is, to me, the embodiment of the modern cheap grace problem. The younger brother has gone off and made a mess of his life. He has made poor decisions. He has squandered his money. And now, worn out and thread bare, he returns. And what does the old man do? He kills the fatted calf and puts a robe on the kid and welcomes him home. For the older brother, this is ridiculous. He has always followed the rules of the tribe. He has been the good guy, and now this punk kid is coming in here and getting all the good stuff after wasting half of the old man’s wealth. While we understand the older brother’s frustrations, we can see the problem here. His grace is cheap.
We love grace when it comes to us. We like to withhold it when it threatens us. But this is not how we are called to see God’s gift of grace. I remember one of the best experiences I had in India. One afternoon I caught a rickshaw and went to the zoo. Attached to the zoo was a small art museum. While I had no idea what was in the little museum I thought well, what the heck, when in Rome, so I went inside. I saw some amazing works there. I saw works by a Russian pair of brothers who had lived in Indian in the late 19th and early 20th century which were simply stunning. But most of the museum was the work of one man Raji Ravi Varma. Varma had lived in the 19th century and had been a prolific artist. In addition to doing official portraits of the English nobility in the country, he also painted scenes of everyday life in India. His most famous was simply entitled, “the milkmaid,” and shows a young woman with a jug of milk on her head. His work was lovely and it captured a sort of idealized India. And here is the thing about that museum. Do you know how much it cost to go in? Thirty cents. Thirty cents. Even for a working class Indian, they can swing that. Everybody could come inside and see the works of Raji Ravi Varma. That didn’t make his work cheap, on the contrary, it made it priceless because anybody could go and see it and be inspired by it.
We love it when that message of grace is proclaimed in our lives, or at least I do. I love hearing that through Jesus Christ God has forgiven me for what I have done. But can we make that grace priceless by recognizing that it is not ours to dispense and that even those whom we do not love have access to the same grace? Herein is our challenge. Here is what makes that grace real. Can we be the older brother and celebrate the return of the younger? Can we recognize that God’s grace is abundant enough even for the man who enjoys his fortune cookie or the child who dresses up for Halloween, or for the Democrat or Republican or whatever sin our tribe has labeled as unforgivable?
Jesus teaches us to pray, “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors,” and I am reminded of something Diana Butler Bass said last weekend. She said that a Jewish Rabbi pointed out that whereas we Christians often focus on the end of the story, Jews focus on the beginning. In this instance, they were talking about creation vs. resurrection, but her words made me think about the beginning of this passage, not the end. Do you remember how this passage starts? Let me remind you, there was a man who had two sons. This is not the story of a prodigal son, it is the story of the son who receives grace and the one who begrudges it. God’s grace, my dear friends, is not a finite resource. It is priceless. It is abundant. And it is for you, for me, and for those whom we can’t stand. And thank God for that. Amen.