“Not for $100”

Our weekly devotion from the sainted Rev. Earl Fedderson:

Exodus 16:2-15
Ephesians 4:17-24
John 6:24-35

On more than one occasion, I have used the illustration of a church giving away $100 to every person who attends Sunday worship. The illustration can be used in a variety of ways. We can compare the relative values that people place on the Gospel to $100 by running ads in a paper two weeks in a row.

The first week, tell the world that your church will give away free, to every person attending worship, the saving Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. On Sunday, count members and visitors separately, but add up the total. The second week (you may need a willing millionaire to pull this off), advertise that you will give away $100 to every person in attendance. Count the same way, and then see if–at least the members–can learn anything humbling by comparing the two weeks.

Another potentially humbling experience would be to give $100 to each person, without prior announcement. Tell only those in attendance that you will do the same thing the next week. They can tell anyone and everyone, but no news release will be given to the media. The next Sunday, after all the money has been served up, humble pie can also be served to all those who have been saying for years that they can’t tell the Good News about Jesus, but who couldn’t stop telling about the lesser gift of $100.

I’m sure that creative people could come up with dozens of additional experiments. For instance, let’s say that last Sunday 147 people worshiped at your church. You would have handed out $14,700 to those in attendance. What if you had then said that you would hand out another $14,700 next week on a first-come, first-served basis? You would likely be safe to assume that last week’s worshipers will arrive early next week, but how many would tell someone else–even their families and friends?

In Last Sunday’s Gospel lesson, Jesus did not give $100 to each person in attendance, but He did provide one of the few genuinely free lunches on record. It seems simple–they were hungry, so He fed them. Jesus’ compassion and generosity often got Him into trouble. That, of course, is a huge understatement. His boundless love brought Him to this hostile world and eventually got Him crucified. The seemingly innocent act of “buying” lunch–even if for 20,000 people–got very quickly out of hand. With the prospect of an instant and positive response to every “Give us this day our daily bread,” the crowd wanted to make Jesus king. After all, Caesar was the present “bread king,” but he was stingy. Sensing this, Jesus slipped away.

Later, the disciples started to cross the lake in a boat by themselves. Jesus walked out on the water and met them, but that’s another story. This Sunday’s Gospel lesson begins with the crowd setting out in boats to follow and find Jesus. They knew He didn’t leave with the others, so when they find Him they ask, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” He doesn’t even bother to answer (they probably would have wanted water-walking lessons anyway). He goes right to the root of the problem: “I assure you, you are not looking for me because you have seen signs, but because you have eaten your fill of the loaves.”

One of the biggest difficulties in life is discerning between our needs and our greeds. No one will argue the fact that food is a genuine need for human beings, at least for the continuance of mortal life. As a matter of fact, a gnawing pain reminds us that we need bread to live in the body, but too few of us remember at all that we need Jesus to live in the Spirit. From a human standpoint, it is possible that God is too gracious–we have no gnawing pains when we try to get along without Jesus.

Ladislas M. Orsy wrote: “There is something wondrous in the taste of bread. It is so ordinary yet it is so good. It is very democratic. It nourishes the poor and the rich. It goes well with meat or fish, with fruit or cheese. It may return three times a day to the table; it may even stay there all day long. Yet it never outstays its welcome.” Jesus Christ said, “I myself am the bread of life. No one who comes to me shall ever be hungry; no one who believes in me shall ever thirst.”

Jesus implies here, and in other places, that people do have a spiritual hunger, a thirst for righteousness, an emptiness without Him. In and of itself, that void is usually not as profound or as painful as physical hunger, but there are moments in my life that I could not imagine enduring without Him. If we were to ask 100 people to list the most awful things that could happen to them, I imagine that losing a child would be at or near the top. The death of any loved one would not be far behind.

Without Christ, the gaping hole in our lives where a loved one once lived is as devastating as physical starvation. In time, however, grief passes. Even the ungodly somehow manage to survive it. To me, the greater tragedy is the day-in, day-out living of people who are suffering from spiritual malnutrition. Jesus chastised the crowd because their greed blinded them to the greater values and priorities right before them. Ignoring the fact that the wisdom, vision and glory of Almighty God were right there with them, their gods were their bellies.

In Sunday’s Epistle lesson, St. Paul reminds the Christians at Ephesus that those who are without Christ are guided by self-interest and greed. If we think about the $100 bill experiments, we realize that people haven’t changed much in nearly 2,000 years. We also realize that we Christians are hardly immune to the lure of our bellies and greed. Christianity is not a point on a map or some moment in time at which we can arrive. It is an ongoing process of putting off the old nature and putting on the new. The Christian life is a pilgrimage–a journey of growth. Every day we must honestly face ourselves and discover the areas of our lives that need transformation. The Christian faith addresses every decision we make and every action we take.

It’s one thing to say, “One of these days, I’m going to” clean out the attic, or vacuum the trunk of the car. We may or may not ever get around to it and it probably won’t matter. It is another thing to put off going to church, finding your niche of service to God and humanity, telling your children, parents and spouse that you love them or telling them the Good News about Jesus. “One of these days” there will be no more days for these things … or anything.

For all His marvelously enlightening and comforting words, Jesus was in no way just a talker. When the people were hungry, He fed them–even though it meant His having to sneak away privately afterward. When they needed the truth, He gave it–even though they hated Him for it. When they wanted blood, He even gave that. We need forgiveness, faith, an eternal future, assurance that resurrection–not death–is final. He freely gives them all.

Growing in grace and being recreated into the likeness of God is not some pipe dream. God gives us everything to turn possibility into reality. Through the Word and Sacraments God enables us not just to cope and muddle through, but to grow, and to be what He alone can envision us to be.

The poet Bialik begins his poem “Shirati” by asking, “Do you want to know why there is a sob in my heart, why there are tears in my eyes?” As you continue reading you suspect that his difficult childhood is the reason–that these are tears of misery, but you are wrong. His father died when he was very young, and his mother worked long hours in a store to provide for him and his brother and sister. She did household chores, including cooking, late into the night.

One night he saw her kneading dough and noticed she was weeping as she worked and prayed, “May I bring up my children to be God fearing. May they never disgrace me ….” As she continued he saw that her tears rolled down her “sweet, tired, lovely cheeks.” She didn’t even notice that they mixed with the dough. Bialik wrote that the next morning, “As I ate the bread, I swallowed my mother’s tears. Part of my mother was in that bread. And now you know why there are tears in my eyes … a sob in my heart.”

On Sunday, Jesus will say of a piece of bread, “Take and eat; this is my body given for you.” I don’t know about you, but I’m not going to miss that–not for $100!

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