Faith Matters - Free Lunch

A friend sits across a lunch table and empties an overflowing heart. Nearing the end of her long and painful story, she finally says to me, “You know, when all of these things went wrong in my life, I thought it might help if I went to church. So I started. I came for quite a while. But my problems did not go away. My life did not get any better. Everything was just as bad as before. I figured, what’s the use? So I stopped coming. It didn’t seem to make any difference one way or the other. I might just as well sleep on Sunday morning.”  

My listening, my questions and my counsel do not seem to bring her any comfort. I wish I had healing words to change her mind, to help her stay with the congregation while she waits for the peace she seeks. As is so often the case, I am not able to fix what is broken. She musters in that regiment of the purple-hearted, the wounded who retreat in their pain and disappointment.  

St. John remembers the day after the feeding of the 5,000 when the crowd pursued Jesus to his hiding place to force him to be king. Here was a king who feeds by miracle and not by the sweat of the brow or the bend of the back. There were twelve baskets left over. He appeared to be a first century fish-in-every-pot king for all seasons. But in their enthusiasm, a point was missed. They were yet to learn that he was not a smoke and mirrors wizard pulling ropes behind the curtain. He had something far more profound, more permanent, to offer them. Sometimes miracles can mislead.  

When they finally track him down and invade his retreat, he confronts them: “You come to me because of the loaves you ate, not because you saw signs.” They had come for another free lunch and not for the deeper feeding he was offering. And yet, who could blame them? We understand. We are at the head of the queue. Give us what we want, when we want it, or even promise it, and we too will invade his retreat. He spreads the feast before us--food for life, drink for life eternal, but we prefer to take our chances with the luncheon buffet. Give us belly food over soul food every time. There is nothing wrong with belly food, of course, except that we are hungry an hour later.  

When we are willing to let people cross our defenses, they will tell us of that deep hunger: illness, marriage on the rocks, wayward children, bankrupt, addiction, too young to die, the progressive decline of aging, emptiness and profound loneliness. They will tell us how they have prayed their hearts out to be rescued. They have asked God to stretch forth a mighty arm and make the cancer go away, the spouse stop drinking, the prodigal come home, and the numbers on the ping-pong balls roll their way for once—just this once.  

It is not as hard to follow Jesus when all is well, when we eat our fill of bread and fish, when we are healthy, the kids are in the Honor Society, we are blessed by a happy marriage, we like our job, and we have a few bucks under the mattress. But what happens when the locusts ride in on a cold night wind and devour the crops?  

A disappointed friend told me of her change in church attendance, not coming any more, believing that she understood that if she did her part, God would do God’s part. She attends and God rescues. I understand. I hurt along with her. I have invaded Jesus’ retreat with my empty baskets more than once. I hope and pray for her, and for myself, that the word about the deeper hunger would capture our hearts and transform our desires. With the deeper hunger satisfied, we learn to live and grow with the other hungers.  

My reading of the Gospel does not reveal any guarantee of rescue, although God’s grace can and does afford it. It does not promise another free lunch, although life-transforming grace surely is free. I read about the promise of presence and possibility. I read of the bread of life that feeds the deepest human hunger for meaning and the wine that quenches the hidden thirst for life eternal. I read about the gift of a peace which remains after the locust’s work is done.  

The meal is not food or drink, rescue or windfall, success or good check-ups or anything else we might want God to deliver to us in our desire or our need. The meal is the grace of God. It can become more than a metaphor for us, a gift that keeps on giving.  And if that grace were all that we ever received, it would be enough.  

God’s peace.

Chuck Johns

By: Reverend Chuck Johns On 10/1/2009
Topics: Faith Matters