Who here hasn’t felt lately like they’ve been nickel and dimed to death? The nickel and dime problem is huge and getting worse. Hidden fees seem to be everywhere—from travel, to shopping, to school and yes even church fundraisers.
Comparison shopping for a hotel room is impossible. The bargain price hotel may very well charge for amenities we’ve come to expect: Internet for your room, resort fee, parking, luggage storage, fitness center, extra towels at some beach hotels. Feeling a little dehydrated and “hangry” from all those fees—well get ready to pay up for that bottle of water and snickers bar. But say you’re willing to pay, you just need some cash from the lobby ATM, well guess what…?!
The flight to get to that hotel may also contain some hidden fees also. While the ticket may have appeared cheaper when purchasing, it may later cost you more when you’re assessed fees for checking bags, weight of those bags, extra leg room, priority boarding, and possibly even your carry-ons.
You can always travel by ground and rent a car. But not so fast! You’ll find the rental car company’s advertised price does not include a navigation system, electronic toll collection devices and other amenities. Of course, they’re available… for an extra fee. Oh, but you’re under the age of 25, or over the age of 70? Yikes! Look out.
And it’s not just travel. Spend a few minutes shopping for just about anything online, and you will quickly learn to look for the hidden fees. The vendor that appears to have the best price for an item may be charging excessive shipping and handling fees, making the final cost the most expensive.
And no one told me about all the hidden fees when it comes to sending my kid to kindergarten! My daughter needs how many glue sticks?!
Hidden fee practices have become so pervasive that we’ve become rather adept at sniffing them out with our “scam-radar.” (Some call it something else, but I thought it better not to use that term in the pulpit.) As the old adage says, “If something is too good to be true, it probably is.”
So when a price is too low, we begin to search everywhere for the hidden fees and we look for “the fine print.” We don’t like being nickel and dimed because nickels and dimes quickly add up, and, before long, we end up paying far more than we had bargained for.
This is why, when we come upon today’s reading from Ephesians, many tend to engage their scam-radar. Is this another shiny sales pitch hiding some nickel and dime hidden fees that will hurt us later? This seems too good to be true. Our sins are forgiven? We are renewed and restored? We, who were once dead, receive new life?
This sounds like too much mercy. This sounds like too much grace. It sounds too good to be true. Well here’s the frosting on the salvation cake: All of this comes to us for free. There’s nothing we need to do, no hoops to jump through, no hidden costs. No fine print. It’s free.
If you’re like most people, you’re thinking…Really? Free?
Remember inventor Ron Popeil and his ubiquitous television infomercials. His Ronco company sold amazing products including the Pocket Fisherman, the Inside-the-Shell Egg Scrambler, and the Chop-O-Matic.
Ronco became a multimillion-dollar enterprise not only on the strength of Popeil’s inventions, but also because he was an amazing salesman pioneering the info-mercial to sell his products to the world. Popeil popularized the advertising techniques, “How much would you pay?” and “But wait! There’s more!”—techniques still used almost 40 years later.
Today’s passage from Ephesians begins like a Ronco sales pitch. We’re reminded of just how difficult life can be. You were dead through your sins. You’ve been disobedient to the ways of God. You followed your own desires. And where did all of that get you? The same place it leads everyone else— nowhere.
You can almost see the exasperated person portrayed in the television commercial and the voice of the announcer saying, “Have you ever tried to …?” The actor has disheveled hair and an annoyed expression on her face. She knows it’s going to be a long, difficult and, ultimately, unsuccessful day.
Paul, like a good infomercial narrator, points out all the places where people have tried to find the better way on their own. They have “lived … in the passions of [their] flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses” and found them empty.
We know what that’s like. We, too, have chased after money, position and power, only to find when we’ve acquired them, that they aren’t what we expected. We aren’t as satisfied as we had hoped to be.
We shop for vacations, finding all of those nickel and dime fees and getting the rock-bottom, best price. We search for amazing deals on new cars, computers and other things we want.
But we find that seeking after the passions of our flesh and desires of our senses satisfies only for a moment.
Before long, we are again shopping for the next great thing. Without help, we become mired in a never-ending cycle of pursuing things we believe will make us whole and happy but fall short.
So what do we do?
Paul offers a solution.
Like the disheveled infomercial actor, we can further imagine the deep-voiced, enthusiastic narrator asking, “What would you pay to break the cycle of disappointment, to be raised up with Jesus, to be made alive with him and to be seated with him in glory?”
The biblical answer is actually like the infomercial answer—“It’s so easy! You have to do nothing!”
That’s it. Nothing.
The price has already been paid; the work has been done.
God is not in the business of nickel and diming us to death. Instead, we are being mercy and graced to life. And it’s all free.
There’s a new life which will deeply satisfy, and it’s available to us—for free.
We were once dead, but we can be made truly alive—for free.
We’ve been struggling; there is one who will save us—for free.
We have been poor; there are better riches available to us—for free.
Of course we hear these words today and our scam radar goes off. We’re cynical. We’ve been trained to be skeptics. We’ve been taught there’s no such thing as a free lunch. We’ve learned from experience that if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. We’ve been victims of corporate greed, commissioned salespeople and fine print.
Add to that—we believe nothing should be free. Honest, hard work is good. Paying your way is good, handouts are not— we don’t want them and we don’t want others giving them either. Good, proper, faithful behavior is rewarded, anything else deserves punishment—maybe for eternity.
So Paul’s words leave us cynical and skeptical and we wonder what God is really after from us. What will this really cost us?
Well, you’re right. There is a cost.
It will cost us thinking as people of this world.
It will cost us the belief that nothing is free and only a few are privileged enough to get this.
It will cost us thinking the most unredeemable can’t be redeemed.
It will cost us thinking and believing the way we so often think and believe.
A deeper reading of this passage reveals it isn’t a sales pitch. God isn’t trying to boost God’s numbers and get rich off of us. This is not a business transaction.
Paul writes, instead, that God is doing all this, “out of the great love with which he loved us.”
This is a gift, given to us with no strings attached. This is an act of love from God, and God’s love changes everything.
In fact, Paul goes on to write that not only do we not need to buy in, we can’t. We cannot earn it through something we give. We do not deserve it because of something we’ve done. It’s a gift given to us through the grace of God and the mercy of Jesus Christ.
So when we look for the fine print, as we are trained to do, we notice this passage is in the past tense—God “made us alive”, “you have been saved” and God has “raised us up with him.”
All of this has already been done for us. Our task is not to do something to earn this amazing new life, but rather our task is to respond to this new, more satisfying life we have already been given.
Paul concludes: “For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”
God is not asking us to earn something, but, rather, to receive something, and then respond faithfully.
We expect to get nickel and dimed to death by salespeople and corporations.
We’ve all been exasperated by the cycle of seeking ways of living that are satisfying, only to see our efforts fall short. We’ve bought into the old way of living— chasing the desires of the flesh and senses— and have found them lacking.
There is a better way, but we don’t have to purchase it. In fact, it isn’t for sale. It’s a gift we’ve already received. And it’s all free.
Ok, it will cost us some old ways of thinking and believing, but we know from experience how those old ways have worked out for us and others.
So go ahead. Look again for the fine print. But know all we find is God’s love for each one of us.
God isn’t asking us to purchase a new and improved product, to buy into a program, or to accept a philosophy.
God is inviting us to accept the love we’ve already been given. It’s already available to us. We just need to accept this gift which is free for all.
So may we accept, and respond to, the great gift of God’s love by living into the life of faith which has already been bought and given to us…for free. Amen.