MARCH 24, 2016

Rev. Dr. Richard Meyer

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            Are you familiar with the term, “BOGO?” I wasn’t until our very frugal daughter-in-law introduced me to the term. BOGO. Buy one. Get one. BOGO. Buy one get one free. There is something about the word “free” that fills us with irrational excitement.

            Things we don’t really need become irresistible because they’re free.  We take home more yogurt than we can possibly eat, drive an extra ten miles to stores we would never otherwise visit, and hang on to coupons for products we don’t even use because of the siren call of “free samples.”

            Let me remind you of the words of the Apostle Paul that I read earlier. He doesn’t use the word “free” per se, but that’s the gist of what he says. Listen to his words from Ephesians once again.


            For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God (that is it’s free) - not the result of works, so that no one may boast.


            Saved by grace. Free. Not the result of works, of anything we have done. Free.

            In his book Predictably Irrational, economist Dan Ariely tells of a number of experiments he conducted to demonstrate how things that are free affect everyday decisions.

            I particularly enjoyed his experiments with chocolates. I had intended to bring the chocolates we got each night on the cruise ship, two chocolates each night. Different types of chocolates, individually wrapped. But I ate them all. Anyway, Ariely and his colleagues set up a table on a college campus.  They displayed two brands of chocolate beside a sign which read: One chocolate per customer.

            One of the chocolates they offered was the humble Hershey’s Kiss.  Hershey’s cranks out about 80 million of them every day.  I’m told if you ever visit Hershey, Pennsylvania, you’ll discover that even the streetlights are shaped like Kisses. Have any of you been there? Seen that?

            The other kind of chocolate was a Lindt truffle.  Compared to a Kiss, a truffle is a serious piece of candy.  They retail at about 30 cents each.

            Ariely and his associates offered the two kinds of chocolate at bargain prices.  Kisses sold for just one cent.  Truffles cost 15 cents.  Which of the two do you think were scooped up by the passing collegians?

            Seventy-three percent of the students chose the truffle.  That made total sense.  They were getting a very good piece of chocolate for a very good price.

            Then Ariely made a simple change.  He dropped the price of each chocolate by one penny.  The Kisses were now free.  The truffles each cost 14 cents. But this time only 31% of the students chose the truffle, even though its value was even better.  A whopping 69% chose to take a Kiss.

            Ariely had theorized that minor price reductions would not make a difference in what chocolates we actually prefer.  But free is just so very powerful.

            Interestingly, there is one realm where “free” appears to be too good to be true.  That would be the realm of religion.

            The Gallup Organization routinely asks Americans to sort themselves into one of four theological categories.  They ask people, “Which of these do you believe?  (1) There is no God.  (2) God exists but cannot be known.  (3) God exists and leads with law and order.  (4) God exists and leads with love and acceptance.”

            Shockingly two-thirds of American church attenders, who identify themselves as Jesus’ followers bet their lives on #3 and not on #4. That is to say, they assume that God gives them a thumbs up or thumbs down based on their own spiritual merit badges.

            According to the Apostle Paul, however, it’s not like that at all. That’s what makes it “good news.” According to Paul, we are all treading water, miles offshore, and the “good news” is that a boat comes alongside us and Jesus is extends his hand to pull us aboard.

            That’s the gist of Ephesians 2:8-9. Eugene Peterson put it this way in his paraphrase of Paul’s words. “All we do is trust him enough to let him do it.  It’s God’s gift from start to finish.  We don’t play the major role.  If we did, we’d probably go around bragging that we’d done the whole thing!” (The Message)

            Unfortunately, all too many Christians somehow manage to turn God’s free gift into something they have to earn. But the entire thrust of the season of Lent – the 40 days between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday – is that the cost has already been paid in full.

            For many of us, it will take a lifetime of Lents to get that message and to accept that it’s really true: that Jesus offers us a grace-based, forgiven relationship with him. The kind of relationship that is even better than chocolate.