Rev. George Miller
“Offense of Grace”
June 16, 2013
Today is Father’s Day, and an appropriate way to begin the message is with the story of the Father Who Had Two Sons. Ya’ll know the story, although Pop Culture gives it a deceptively simplified name.
The story goes like this: A man has two sons. The youngest asked for his inheritance, squandered it away in a distant land and found himself broke and ashamed.
He returns to his father expecting to spend the rest of his life as a hired hand. Instead, he is greeted with hugs, kisses, and a banquet.
Meanwhile, the eldest son who stayed behind, slaving away, tending to the family business, obeying every command, can not understand how his father could be so compassionate. So he refuses to be part of the celebration.
The father’s response? “We had to celebrate because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life, was lost and has been found.”
This story flies in the face of logic. In the words of Fred Craddock, this story is about the “offense of grace.”
God’s Kingdom goes against the world’s ways of what’s fair, how things should be done and the assumption that in order for there to be winners there has to be losers…
…But what if, what if in God’s Kingdom, the event of Jesus Christ means that everyone is a winner, no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey?
Does that give you great comfort, or do you find great offense?
Today we conclude our sermon series on Galatians, a letter Paul wrote in response to a painful experience at church.
Religious leaders came into the congregation to tell them that in order to truly reap the benefits of Jesus Christ they would have to embrace the Jewish Laws.
Paul disagrees and passionately hustles for the Lord, using all the tools he can to prove to the people once and for all that what God did for us through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ was “enough.”
In today’s reading, Paul gets all courtroom on us, using legal jargon to explain how we have already been acquitted and pronounced as righteous.
In other words, we are “justified by faith in Christ.”
But what does that mean? What does the “grace of God” refer to?
Does that mean God is like a figure-skater gracefully moving too and fro?
Can a fairly liberal, welcoming congregation like ours, in the year 2013, away from a courtroom, even have an idea what words like “justified” and “grace” meant back in the year 50 CE?
Thankfully, I recently came across something that, for me, has made the whole notion of being justified a bit easier to understand.
In the June edition of Psychology Today there is a section devoted to what’s called “The Enemies of Invention.” It’s a psychological examination of how our creativity becomes stifled and limited.
One article, “Fear of Failure Narrows Vision,” stated that in physical or tedious tasks, we do our best when we know we are being evaluated.
But in tasks that require insight and creativity, we do better when we’re not evaluated. Why? Because then we are not afraid of failure.
A Harvard psychologist ran an experiment in which participants were asked to produce something creative. A panel of experts evaluated them on being coherent, original, meaningful and surprising.
Some people were told their works would be judged. Others were told their works would be entered into a contest with prizes. Others were told not a thing.
The ones who the experts said had the most creative projects? The people who had no idea their work would be evaluated.
Why? Because they were just playing; they were creating art for arts sake, not for judgment or reward.
Another psychologist theorized that positive emotions broaden our views and thoughts, allowing us to create in new, exciting ways. Negative emotions narrow our imagination because we become focused on the idea of being judged, rewarded or punished.
In other words, you can’t force people to be creative or tell them to try harder. Creativity comes from “playing” rather then aiming to please or for praise.
Theologically, I believe this can be applied to Paul’s notion of being justified. Because of Jesus Christ, we are not being judged by an expert panel or by the Kingdom’s list of do’s and don’ts.
Because of Jesus Christ, God is not keeping a scorecard and lining us up to be loved according to being coherent, meaningful, creative or surprising.
Because God shown eternal, kingdom love for us in the manger Christmas Day, at the Cross on Good Friday and at the tomb on Easter Morning, therefore we are justified and deemed worthy of our Father’s love for once and for all.
Meaning there is nothing we can do. There is nothing we have to do. We can just be and play, have fun and create, and have faith in God.
Do you find this message incredibly offensive or do you find it incredibly freeing?
Is it possible that in Christ everyone wins, or do we have to have losers?
As Americans, as people who just came off of a season of Oscars, F-Cat scores, Tonys and graduation ceremonies, we are people of achievement and reward.
Because of this, there have been amazing strides in culture and science. But we are also people who are very much into pleasing others: our parents, friends, teachers, bosses, spouses, peers, co-workers, team mates.
Why? We want their love and we want to know we are loved; we want to know that we are a person of worth. We want that gold star, that certificate, that praise.
What about God? How many here have struggled with trying to please God? To earn God’s favor? To be guaranteed a place at the table? A space in the Kingdom?
How many have gone to houses of worship where you were told you didn’t belong? Or weren’t good enough? Or you were to be left behind unless…unless you tried harder, did the right thing, said the right words?
That’s not what Paul is saying here. That’s not what Paul is talking about when he refers to faith, grace and justified.
We’re not a kid who thinks he can only get his father’s love by hitting a homerun.
We’re not a toddler with a tiara who thinks she can only make her mother happy by winning first place.
Being justified means there is no magic number we have to hit on the scale.
We do not have to give the best sermon, sing the best solo, play the best postlude, design the best kitchen, plant the prettiest flowers, create the best Vacation Bible School or serve the hottest coffee in order to be accepted, loved or deemed worthy.
Because guess what? In Jesus Christ we already are.
In Jesus Christ we already belong, we are already good enough, and we will not be left behind.
In Christ we do not have to try harder, do the right thing, or say the right words.
We are justified by faith in Christ, meaning that we have already won.
In Christ, we have already won, so we can just be.
In Christ, we have already won, so we can play.
In Christ, we have already won, so we are free to create.
In Christ, we have already won, so we are free to do for the sake of doing and because it brings joy into our life, joy into the world and joy into our Father’s Kingdom.
In Christ, we have already won, so we are free to do justice, free to love kindness and free to continue humbly walking with our Lord.
In Christ, we have already won, so we are free to be the best version of ourselves that we were initially created to be, free of the snares, roadblocks and defeatist attitudes of others.
In Christ, we have already won, so we are even free to run away, make mistakes and to come back home because we know our Father is ready to meet us with hugs and kisses and a banquet ready to be served.
Through the event of Jesus Christ, God has shown for all time that we are forever acceptable in God’s sight.
In Christ, we have already won the prize, so therefore we can stop trying to earn God’s favor and instead faithfully live the best life we can.
A life that is coherent, meaningful, creative and surprising.
Amen and amen.