“Jesus’ Grace: Am I Accepted?”
A Sermon on Luke 15:11-32 (with Romans 2:21-24, 26) for the 3rd Sunday in Lent, Year C; preached February 28, 2016, by the Rev. Matthew Emery, Senior Minister
Part of a Lent preaching series: What’s the Least I Can Believe and Still Be a Christian?
“The old father sees a long way off, for dim eyes can see a long distance when the son is the object.” So writes one of our English Puritan ancestors, a guy named Edward Leigh, way back in the early 1600s. Dim eyes can see a long distance when the beloved one, the one that reflects back those eyes’ own image, rises over the horizon. Dim eyes can see a long distance when those eyes look out from the face of the One who is love… when those eyes look out with the gaze that is grace itself.
Grace is the center-point around which all the rest of Christian faith orients. Sure, there’ve been plenty of times and places when Christians have done an unfortunately good job of obscuring that center, that core reality of God’s grace. In fact, you could fairly say that we live in such a time and place right now, given how large a percentage of people in my own generation and our college students’ generation, how many of them view Christianity as judgmental, homophobic, self-righteous, and rigid (among other not-so-flattering things). And indeed, many Christians and Christian institutions are those things, and those of us who—for the most part—are not… well, most of us are more passionate about keeping up our facilities and facades, our institutions and organizations, our customs and conventions, than we ever seem to be about introducing others to grace and to God.
But I digress…
Appearances to the contrary aside, grace truly is that center around which Christian faith, rightly-constituted, revolves. As the story goes, the world-famous theologian and author C.S. Lewis—yes, the same one who gave us the Narnia stories—he went so far as to say that the belief in grace was unique to Christianity, in fact the unique belief. He and colleagues put forth that trust in God’s unconditional love and acceptance of us as we are, offered to human beings with no strings attached, that it’s unique among the world’s religions. Now, I’m not sure I’d push that claim as far as he did—there may be some over-simplification and caricature of other faiths at work there. Nevertheless, I do think it’s fair to say that we Christians do hold grace at the center of our faith in a much more prominent way than anyone else.
So, what is grace? Grace is that word we use to name the truth that, in spite of our flaws, our failures, our brokenness, our misdeeds and misgivings, or really anything else, God still loves us and stays in relationship with us. In fact, God makes relationship with us, even when we cut it off. That’s what the apostle Paul was testifying to in his letter to the Romans from which we’ve heard this morning. All of us have fallen short of what God intends for us. That much is true, but so too that all of us are justified—that is, made right and restored to relationship with God—purely by the free gift of God. That’s what grace is: unearned, undeserved, unmerited, even unexpected. As that same Paul wrote just a few chapters, “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Of course, the truth is that all of us do any number of things day-in and day-out that try—whether intentionally or not—to separate us from God’s love. We wander a long road to a far off country, far from the fullness of who we are as God intends us to be. For some of us, it’s the obvious things that we might be inclined to speak of as “sins” or moral wrongs—hatred, violence, prejudice, exploitation of others. Other times, it’s the more sinister things that can happen to us, wherein we are victims just as much as perpetrators, things like addictions, self-doubt and self-loathing, even behaviors borne out of abuse. Still others of us may think of ourselves as generally “good” people—upstanding citizens, wholesome livers, kind to neighbor and stranger alike. In fact, I bet a good number of us here in this room might think of ourselves in such a frame. All the while, our blindness to our own sin and brokenness, and our naivety and even apathy about the tremendous sins and injustices embedded in the very structures of our society in which we have no choice but to take part in… such blindness and naivety and apathy are among the gravest of sins themselves. All the kindness and good citizenry in the world can’t hold a candle to that sort of unacknowledged depravity.
But you see, that’s just it. That’s what grace is all about. Grace means that God loves us and welcomes us, not because we are good, but because God is. In her book Traveling Mercies, Anne Lamott shares about her journey toward faith in Jesus Christ. Finding herself broke, drunk, bulimic, depressed, and addicted to drugs, she “could no longer imagine how God could love [her].” In desperation, she made an appointment to talk to an Episcopal priest. “I’m so messed up that I don’t think God can love me,” she told him. “God has to love you,” he replied. “That’s God’s job.”
Now, many of us do not share back stories like Anne Lamott’s. Some of us do, and many of us do not. But just because you haven’t been caught victim to the evils of drug addiction, or otherwise haven’t come to hit “rock bottom” in the ways we typically think of, don’t let that fool you into thinking you’re somehow beyond the grasp of sin or above the need for grace. I know I’m not, and quite frankly, I know you’re not either—each and every one of you.
And once again you see, that’s just it. No matter how true that is, truer still is the grace of God, the promise of the gift so great that nothing in all of creation can negate it. After all, as that Puritan ancestor of ours, Mr. Leigh, said, “The old father sees a long way off.” In fact, no place far off is too far off, and God’s eyes are never too dim to see that long distance when you, my friends, are the objects.
That the old father sees a long way off is, of course, a reference to the well-known and well-loved story we’ve heard from the gospel of Luke this morning. And I love the way the story captures the turning point for the younger son: “having finally come back to himself.” Come back to himself… that’s so true, isn’t it, that what threatens to separate us from God is that which separates us from our truest selves, from who we were created to be, in our fullness, by God. The old 4th-century church father St. Ambrose agreed: “For what is more afar off,” he wrote, “than to depart from one’s self … he who severs himself from Christ is an exile from his [true] country and a citizen [only] of this world.”
There is so much that can be said about this story. We could look at the younger son, how he wanted his rights without responsibility, and his freedom without relationship, and his future without waiting. We could look at the older brother, the one who refuses to join the party… we could even rightly ask about if—or, probably more accurately, when—we play the role of that older brother. In fact, the writer of the hymn we sang at the beginning of the service knew how that happens, for his original text also included a stanza that went:
But we make His love too narrow
By false limits of our own;
And we magnify His strictness
with a zeal He will not own.
But for today, I want us simply to dwell with the father of these two. After all, another way we too often display our brokenness is in making everything all about us and not simply letting ‘God be God’. Or, as one commentator has put it, “Behind Jesus’ parable lies profound and overwhelming truth about God and God’s kingdom … It is just not about you or me, or my sin or your sin, or my deserts or your deserts. It is about God and God’s life-giving love and mercy.”
Indeed, it’s hard to get more basic than that, my friends: that grace is about God, God’s life-giving love and mercy, God’s ability to see you and welcome you home no matter how far the distance you’ve wandered or been forced to wander by the circumstances of life.
Really, I can think of no better story to show what grace is all about than one I’ve actually told from this pulpit before, but quite frankly it is the sort of story that bears, and even deserves, repeating. The story is one told by sociologist and Evangelical Christian leader Tony Campolo. A good number of years ago, he found himself in a greasy spoon diner in Honolulu at 3 am because he couldn’t sleep and was hungry. Just a short walk up the side street from his hotel, he perched himself on a stool at the counter in the otherwise empty diner. Sitting there at 3:30 in the morning, with his coffee and donut, in walks in a group of some 10 or 11 prostitutes. The place being quite small—with only the counter stools, no booths—Campolo was soon surrounded on both sides. The woman next to him was ‘especially boisterous’ and she said to her friend “tomorrow’s my birthday, and I’m going to be, I’m going to be 39.” And her friend said, “so… whaddaya want me to do… sing ‘Happy Birthday’? So you’re gonna be 39, you wanna cake, you wanna party?” The first woman said, “Look, I don’t want anything, I’m just tellin’ you it’s my birthday. Why do you have to hurt my feelings?” And then, she added, “I’ve never had a birthday party in my whole life. I don’t expect to have one now.”
“That did it,” Campolo said. He waited until the group left and then called the cook over to ask whether that group came in every night. They did. “And the one right next to me?” “Agnes,” the cook replied. “It’s her birthday tomorrow,” Campolo informed him. “Whaddaya say we decorate this place, and when she comes in tomorrow night, we have a little party for her. She’s never had a party in her whole life.” The cook grabbed Campolo’s hand and squeezed it, and said “Mister… that’s beautiful… Beautiful! Jan, come out here, this guy wants to throw a birthday party for Agnes, it’s her birthday tomorrow.” The woman came out and said, “Ohh, mister, that’s brilliant. Nobody ever does anything for Agnes, and she’s one of the good people in this town. I know, I know what she does to make money, but she’s a good person.”
So Campolo goes to the diner the next morning at about 2:30, decorates up the place, big sign saying “Happy Birthday, Agnes” perched up behind the counter—he had the place spruced up nicely. Jan—the woman who worked there in the diner—had gotten the word out on the street, and by 3:15 a.m., every single prostitute in Hololulu was squeezed into that diner. At 3:30, as expected, the door opens and in came Agnes and her friends. Everybody yells “Happy Birthday, Agnes” and then starts cheering like mad. Campolo says he’s never seen anyone so stunned in his life. Her knees buckled a bit, and they got her over to the stool, and started singing “Happy Birthday” to her. “When they brought out the cake with the candles,” he says, “that was it. She lost it and started to cry.” When she was given the knife and told, ‘now cut the cake,’ Agnes sat for a long moment and then turned to Campolo and said “Mister, I really don’t want to cut the cake. Is it ok if I don’t cut the cake? … I want to take it home. I want to show it to my mother. Is that ok?” She stood up, to which Campolo asked, “Do you have to do it now?” “I live only two doors down. Let me take the cake to her, and then I promise I’ll bring it right back. I promise.” She picked up the cake “like it was the Holy Grail,” and pushed her way through the crowd and out the door.
As the door swung shut, there was dead silence. “You talk about an awkward silence,” he says, “all of us were just standing there stunned. I didn’t know what to say, and so I finally said ‘Whaddaya, whaddaya say we … pray.” He admits that “it’s weird looking back on it now. A sociologist leading a prayer meeting with a bunch of prostitutes at a diner at 3:30 in the morning…?” And then he adds, “It was the right thing to do.” He prayed that God would deliver her from what filthy men had done to her, probably starting when she was too young to even know what was going on. “That’s how these things start, you know” Campolo says, “some kid 11 or 12 years old gets messed over by some filthy slob, and her self image gets destroyed and she’s ruined… and we blame her when we aught-a be blaming him.” Campolo prayed there with the prostitutes “that God would make her new, because we are here to declare the good news that no matter where you’ve been or what you’ve done, Jesus can make you new.”
When he finished the prayer, Harry, the diner owner leaned across the counter and said, “Hey, Campolo, you told us you were a sociologist. You’re a preacher! What kind-of church you preach in?”
“I preach in a church,” he replied in a moment of divine inspiration, “I preach in a church that throws birthday parties for whores at 3:30 in the morning.”
That, my friends, the only kind of church there is… or, I should say, it’s the only kind of church that has anything to do with Jesus Christ.
 Edward Leigh, Annotations upon all the New Testament Philological and Theological (London: William Lee, 1650), 125; cited in Beth Kreitzer, ed., Luke, Reformation Commentary on Scripture, New Testament vol. 3 (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2015), 314.
 For an in-depth exploration of this, see (among others) David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, unChristian: What a NewGeneration Really Thinks about Christianity… and Why It Matters (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2007).
 Martin Thielen, What’s the Least I Can Believe and Still Be a Christian? A Guide to What Matters Most, 2nd. ed. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013), 82-82. Here Thielen cites Philip Yancey, What’s So Amazing About Grace? (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1997), 45.
 Romans 8:38-39 (NRSV).
 Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith (New York: Anchor Books, 1997), 43; cited in Thielen, What’s the Least I Can Believe, 83.
 Ambrose of Milan, Exposition of the Holy Gospel according to St. Luke, with Fragments of the Prophecy of Isaias, trans. Theodosia Thomkinson (Etna, CA: Center for Traditionalist Orthodox Studies, 1998), 7.213-214; cited in David Lyle Jeffrey, Luke, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2012), 195.
 Roger E. Van Harn, commentary on Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32, in The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Texts, ed. Roger E. Van Harn, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001), 407-408.
 Frederick W. Faber, Oratory Hymns, 1854; cited in Michael B. Curry, homiletical commentary on Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32, in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, ed. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Year C, vol 2 (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 117.
 To borrow a phrase often associated with 20th-century theological giant Karl Barth.
 Rodney Clapp, pastoral commentary on Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32, in Feasting on the Word, 120. Here Clapp cites Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel of Luke X-XXIV, Anchor Bible (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1983), 1084.
 The following story and quotes are transcribed and/or adapted from a story Tony Campolo tells as a part of a sermon “The Kingdom of God is a Party”. Accessed on YouTube on 12 September 2013 at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kWlMV-UmueM.