It comes from a long time back, this story.
I was on my seminary internship in Wahoo, Nebraska.
It was the practice then for area Lutheran pastors (and interns) to take turns leading a monthly communion service at a local nursing home.
These services were held in the lounge at one end of the building. It was the best space they had for such as this and it had a piano so this meant we could share in music together. Even so, the space was less than ideal. Those who arrived early claimed the comfortable chairs lining the walls. Those arriving later would settle into a folding chair, setting their cane or walker aside — often impeding traffic. And of course, a whole lot of others would be moved into the aisle space in their wheel chairs. When it came time to share the bread and wine of communion, you would find yourself moving carefully so as not to get tangled up in some one’s feet or wheel or walker or cane.
It was as I moved to those folks seated near the doorway that I came to Hannah who was, by then, well into her nineties. She sat hunched forward in her wheel chair looking down at her lap. As I paused before her, I wondered for a moment if she was actually asleep, something which would not have been at all unusual. Hesitantly, I leaned down, my hand brushing hers as I pressed the wafer into her palm and spoke the words, “The body of Christ, given for you.”
Hannah was not asleep. In fact, her head jerked up and she said loud enough for all to hear,
“How much does it cost?”
I was so surprised, I did not answer at first, but Hannah asked again,
“How much does it cost?”
This time my words came tumbling out, “But, Hannah,” I stuttered. “It doesn’t cost anything. It’s free!”
I do not know that she heard or understood me then. And looking back, I know now that perhaps her question was not intended for me at all. For she had lived her whole life in a world where everything ‘cost.’ Oh yes, maybe, in fact, she was not the least bit curious about the cost of that wafer of bread, that sip of wine. It could be she was living in another part of her history altogether and something in that moment triggered another response. Even so, the moment and her question has stayed with me.
“How much does it cost?”
Indeed, I think of it again this week when I hear the prophet’s cry to come and eat this abundant feast which comes at no ‘cost’ at all.
This is not the way the world works, of course. In fact, just the other day I found myself in the car listening to an advertiser’s announcement that a certain business venture would come at no financial risk. I laughed at the notion. In these days of primaries and caucuses I shake my head at politicians who make promises as though they have no consequence—as if there would be no ‘cost.’ (And yes, in one way or another, one can make this case from both ends of the political spectrum.) Indeed, think with me of those old cliche’s:
- There is no such thing as a free lunch.
- You have to pay the piper.
or, the one my dad would quote:
- All bills get paid.
I especially resonate with this last one as it promises some measure of justice in a world where equity is often lacking. As you might imagine, these words were often spoken with a shaking head as he pondered another’s foolish or shortsighted or self-centered choices or behavior.
And yet, today, we have the prophet promising something for nothing:
- Not only is it a ‘free lunch,’ but it is a meal that is almost unimaginably extravagant.
- There is no piper waiting to be paid.
- All the bills have been forgiven.
We have before us an image of extravagant grace. It is but ours to pull up a chair and enjoy.
And yet, there is still a price to be paid, is there not? What I mean to say is this:
- For isn’t it so that if one accepts this invitation, one may have to turn down another option?
- And by agreeing to share in this ‘free lunch,’ we have to set aside our pride at our own sense of self-sufficiency, don’t we?
- And certainly when we arrive at this feast of ‘rich food,’ we may find ourselves joined by others whom we had not expected to meet at this table — even those who have caused us pain, or others whose choices have been unacceptable by our standards. And wouldn’t my agreeing to remain come at the cost of forgiveness, or acceptance, or at least ‘thinking again?’
- And oh, isn’t it so that by agreeing to be part of this sumptuous feast we must set aside our own guilt, our own shame, our own deep sense of not deserving this invitation in order to simply receive the generosity of the host?
So perhaps there is no such thing as a ‘free lunch’ after all. And, in fact, perhaps you have noticed that Isaiah points to this as well when he chides his listeners for spending their money ‘for that which is not bread and your labor for that which does not satisfy.’ Clearly something is being ‘spent.’ The question is, where and how will we spend that which is ours to spend?
So yes, the banquet is free. The gifts of God are free. But the price, the cost, is that which we must give up in order to accept this invitation.
And oh isn’t it hard to understand why we would choose to spend on all those other things which do not first or finally feed us at all? Why would we hesitate for even a moment to receive what is so much better, so much more satisfying?
- Can you imagine the feast Isaiah describes today? Consider this meal alongside other meals described in scripture. How are they like? Where do they differ?
- Take a quick mental assessment. Where and how in your life do you “spend money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which doe not satisfy? Where and how might you be called to ‘spend’ differently?
- While the prophet extends an invitation to a feast of rich food which is ‘free,’ it does come at a cost. I have offered above some examples of the ‘price’ we pay to accept this invitation. Which one speaks to you? Would you add another? What would it be?