God calls us all home free to be part of kingdom, Jacque says

The Rev. Dr. Zina Jacque, assistant to the pastor for small groups at Alfred Street Baptist Church in Alexandria, Virginia, presents her sermon on week two’s theme, Games: A Celebration of Our Most Human Pastime, on Sunday morning at the 10:45 a.m., Ecumenical Service of Worship and Sermon, July 2, 2023, in the Amphitheater. In this morning’s service, The Rev. Dr. Zina Jacque forces her sermon on the game, Hide and Seek and the phrase “Olly olly oxen free.” She translated the saying and related it to the passage Luke 15:11-31 in the Bible. BRETT PHELPS/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Column by Mary Lee Talbot

“Olly, olly oxen free” or “all ye, all ye outs in free,” probably comes from 19th-century English. “Is there any better definition of salvation?” the Rev. Zina Jacque asked the congregation at the 10:45 a.m. Sunday morning worship service in the Amphitheater. 

Jacque began her sermon series, “Learning from the Games People Play” with a sermon titled “Olly, Olly Oxen Free.” The scripture reading was Luke 15:11-32, the story of the prodigal son.

Hide and Go Seek was the game at the center of her sermon. The phrase “olly, olly, oxen free” is used at the end of the game to let anyone still hiding know that the seeker has given up and they can come back to base freely.

“I do believe when that father saw his woe-begotten son, I believe that he ran to his broken boy hollering some version of olly, olly oxen free. You who took your inheritance and left are still alive,” she said. 

The son did not know if he would be welcomed by his father. He had disregarded his father’s love. The father says the son is home free but his homecoming is not free to the father. The father was filled with compassion, a word not used in regard to men in Biblical times.

“The word compassion is connected to the womb. For the writer of Luke to use that word in relation to the father was to break with tradition,” Jacque said. “In Luke’s gospel, the word is only used for the Good Samaritan, for the father of the prodigal son and for Jesus.”

The father’s compassion for the younger son comes at a cost: his relationship with his older son. But for the father, the price was worth it. “What is true for the son is true for you and me,” she said. “No matter how much we have disregarded and disrespected God, ‘all ye’ means ‘all’ in the Gospel.”

She continued, “Jesus runs to us when we come to ourselves. While we are rehearsing our confession, Jesus says, ‘I paid it all, come in free.’ We have a Savior who runs to meet us and the son represents the status of all who are loved and redeemed.”

But the man had two sons. It is easy to focus on restorative love for the younger son, for redemption assured, and for the favor of God in life that is unending. For the father, the child was more important than his reputation.

“But the man had two sons,” Jacque said. The older son also got an olly, olly oxen free but, “he captures our attention because the truth is we are more like the older brother. The older brother is still out in the field.” 

She said there are three ways to look at the older brother. First, he saw being right as more important than being in a relationship with his father and brother.

The father came out of the party for the younger son and invited the older son to come in, free. The son told his father that he had worked “like a Hebrew slave” for him and that the father had never had to bail him out, but even though “this child of yours” — his brother — had done the father wrong, the father gave him a party. 

“The older son missed the opportunity to be in relationship with the father and his brother by privileging being right over being in relationship,” Jacque said. “The power of being wise beats the power of being right every time. You can gain a victory and lose the war; you will be right all by yourself.”

People put being right over being in relationship every day, she told the congregation. “We say things like ‘it’s just my truth,’ with daggers in our mouths. We go about without thinking about our carbon footprint. We are all interdependent. If we think we live only for ourselves we abrogate God’s command to love our neighbors as ourselves.”

She continued, “If you call yourself a person of faith and you vote your conscience, you have to talk to the Holy Spirit. We are not independent of what God teaches.”

The second way to look at the older brother is to consider when God’s favor on someone else makes you feel left out. 

“We want to live in a fair world, but, as my mother told me, we live in a post-Genesis 3 world and a fair world is on the other side of the Jordan,” Jacque said.

The older brother’s heart broke because his younger brother seemed privileged. “God’s favor is sufficient to meet all of us,” she said. “No one can take what God has for you.”

As an example, Jacque shared a story about a preaching contest at her seminary. She would have competed with Howard-John Wesley, now the senior pastor of the historic Alfred Street Baptist Church where she serves.

In order to be part of the preaching competition, students had to get the signature of one of the professors of preaching. She went to one professor who said he would not sign her paper because the competition “was for young bucks who could make a difference in the church.” Another professor was on leave, so Jacque could not compete.

She sat on the floor at the back of the hall and listened. She was crying because it was not fair. Wesley won the competition and Jacque was about to leave without congratulating him when “the Holy Spirit said, ‘I dare you not to rejoice with him. What God has for you is for you. God will never forsake you.’ ”

The third way we are like the older brother, she told the congregation, is when we hear God’s whisper and refuse to come inside. 

The father told the older brother that everything he had was the older brother’s, yet the son did not respond. “God has forgiven you, but you withhold forgiveness like the older brother,” she said to the congregation.

This standoff doesn’t end the story. “God knows our story and so we can make the decision to come inside,” Jacque said. “God leads us all inside. God’s ‘olly, olly oxen free’ stands over against the hate generated when courts overstep their bounds, when we don’t let people marry who they want or go to any college they want.”

“Olly olly oxen free” means we are not just forgiven, but we are needed for the kingdom, for justice, peace and koinonia, she said. “ ‘Olly Olly Oxen Free’ is God coming out to plead with us. The work is too big if we don’t have everyone. ‘Olly, Olly. Oxen Free,’ come, the work has just begun.’”

The Rt. Rev. Eugene Taylor Sutton, senior pastor of Chautauqua Institution, presided. Melissa Spas, vice president for religion at Chautauqua Institution, read the scriptures. Nicholas Stigall, organ scholar, played “Toccata in C, BWV 564,” by Johann Sebastian Bach, for the prelude. For the anthem the Chautauqua Choir sang Tell me where is the road,” music by Stephen Paulus and words by Michael Dennis Browne. The choir was directed by Joshua Stafford, director of sacred music and Jared Jacobsen Chair for the Organist. The offertory anthem was Going home, going home,” with music by Antonin Dvořák with text and adaptation by William Arms Fisher. The Chautauqua Choir sang the anthem under the direction of Stafford and accompanied by Stigall. The postlude, played by Stafford, was “Fugue in C, BWV 564,” by Johann Sebastian Bach. Support for this week’s chaplaincy and preaching is provided by the Harold F. Reed, Sr. Chaplaincy and the John William Tyrrell Endowment for Religion.


The author Mary Lee Talbot

Mary Lee Talbot writes the recap of the morning worship service. A life-long Chautauquan, she is a Presbyterian minister, author of Chautauqua’s Heart: 100 Years of Beauty and a history of the Chapel of the Good Shepherd. She edited The Streets Where We Live and Shalom Chautauqua. She lives in Chautauqua year-round with her Stabyhoun, Sammi.