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This message is from September 15, 2002.

Scripture Reading:
Matthew 13:44-46

Vending Machine

Field Hall was a cavernous structure in the SW corner of the campus. It was built according to the Flintstone school of architecture: massive concrete slabs were slapped together with all the subtlety of a house of cards.

Field Hall was named for Douglas Field, a local business man who left a portion of his wealth for this purpose. Mr. Field found some measure of peace in knowing that his name would live on after his own death. Nine years after he died, his name appeared in bronze letters on the side of this building.

Field Hall was built to serve a double purpose. It housed the school's gymnasium, locker room and swimming pool. As you might imagine, the acrid odors of perspiration and chlorine lingered throughout the building. Almost as an afterthought, the upper floor of this building served a second purpose. The dean of admissions and other school bureaucrats had offices on the second floor.

Before they could meet the dean of admissions, potential students had to trudge up the concrete stairway of Field Hall and breathe in the scent of human exertion. A very primal part of the student's brain noticed this pungent odor and formed a lasting association between the school and heavy labor.

Surprisingly, since the building looked like a concrete bunker from the outside, Field Hall was quite spacious inside. A large square atrium on the ground floor rose up to balconies on the second floor.

Brightly colored plastic chairs were bolted to the floor of the atrium. So were dozens and dozens of vending machines.

These vending machines offered fuel for student athletes emerging from the gym. These same machines catered to the school administrators on the second floor. These two demographics made for a wide selection. Those looking for snack food could choose between granola bars, chocolate bars or something more exotic: flavored rice cakes, fried garbanzo beans and packages of sulfite-free "turkey jerky." Those looking to quench their thirst could select their favorite juice or soda pop, or choose coffee or bottled water. One machine dispensed soup. Another offered ice cream bars. There was even one machine that dispensed school supplies, like ballpoint pens and #2 pencils.

Members of the faculty and the student body adored these vending machines. Eventually, people from every corner of the campus came to visit these marvelous machines. Quite apart from their utility, these vending machines were beautiful. The Coke machines were illuminated rubies. The Odwalla machine was adorned in blue and orange, like a cubist sunrise that dispensed carrot juice. The vending machines glittered like a jewelry case wired for electric current.

The dazzling display became a shrine -- for homesick students, for the lovelorn and for those who fretted over grades. Those in the administration came to the shrine for their own reasons; seeking solace from their job or the burdens of parenthood. People came to wander through the brightly lit shrine of vending machines, looking for something to fill the empty places that ached inside of them.

For some, the decision was easy. The decisive people would walk with purpose past the Nescafe dispenser and the Frito Lay machine to pay homage at the radiant altar oatmeal cookies. Or else they would forsake all others and stand reverently before the machine dispensing trail mix.

Some people knew exactly what they wanted -- or at least they thought they did.

* * *

Thomas Price observed all of this from a burnt-orange chair bolted to the floor of the atrium. Thomas admired those who made their decisions with confidence, but he often wondered if these same people would later regret their choice. He could imagine them staring into the hollow cavity of a corn chip bag, feeling just as empty as they had been before their purchase.

Thomas felt more affinity toward those people who wandered from machine to machine, like sheep in search of their shepherd.

Thomas himself was trapped by indecision. The longer he stared at them, the harder it was to distinguish one vending machine from another. They were a chorus of shouting voices. In the Babel sound of their self-promotion, one neon sales pitch was indistinguishable from the next. Not one machine called his name. Even so, he couldn't stop listening. He couldn't stop hoping that one day he would find his place before the exact right machine.

Thomas watched others buzz about the vending machines like bees in a field of brightly colored flowers. Over a period of weeks and months, he became a keen observer of people. He could often anticipate the choices other people would make. He knew what sort of person was likely to pick granola or chicken soup. He knew what sort of person would choose a sports drink or a waxy apple in its own styrofoam tray.

* * *

One day, Thomas sat in his burnt-orange chair and watched someone walk toward the phalanx of vending machines. The young woman didn't fit neatly into any of his established categories, and so Thomas was curious to see what she would buy.

* * *

While she was still walking toward the machines, she counted out a handful of change. "Aha!" Thomas thought to himself. "She already knows what she wants." But then she walked along the canyon wall of vending machines as if she couldn't find the right one.

Finally, she came to a slender machine and stopped. The vending machine was unadorned. It didn't even glow. Strangest of all, it only had one button above its rectangular dispenser. Those who dropped their wealth into this machine had very little control over what they received in return. There was only one choice.

The young woman placed her change into the slot and pushed the single button. She accepted something as it emerged from the dispense. And then, for a moment, it appeared as if she was aglow. It appeared as if the strange machine had kindled a source of light within her.

Thomas blinked and the illusion was gone. The young woman walked away, looking like a normal student on her way to class.

Thomas stared until she was gone. Then he rose to his feet and walked across the atrium to get a better look at the vending machine she had used. Until today, Tomas had always assumed the slender machine was for breaking paper currency into quarters. It looked too functional for the giddy job of commerce.

As he got closer, Thomas saw a small nameplate above the coin slot. It read, simply, "God."

"God," Thomas read aloud.

"Yes?" answered a Voice.

"What do I get if I push the button?" Thomas asked. The conversation was so natural that Thomas first assumed he was simply talking with himself.

"You'll get what you need the most," answered the Voice.

"Do you mean like health?" Thomas asked. "Prosperity? Wisdom?"

"If you want health," answered the Voice, "spend more time in the gym. If you want wisdom, spend more time on your homework." Although Thomas couldn't argue with this advice, he was surprised to hear anything so sensible come from a vending machine.

"How do I know it will be worth my money?" Thomas insisted.

"It's hard to say," the Voice replied. "A guy named Douglas Field kept all of his money until he died. Then he spent a good chunk of it on this building. What do you think? Did he get his money's worth?”

* * *

Thomas felt a tap on his shoulder. He turned to find a custodian dressed in blue coveralls. The beefy man had one hand resting on the handle of a moving dolly. "Excuse me, Bud," said the worker. He gestured toward the narrow machine and continued, "I gotta load this here thing on the truck."

"Wait a minute," Thomas protested. "Where are you taking this."

With exaggerated patience, the custodian repeated, "I'm taking it to the truck. We gotta make room for something new, here."

Things were happening much too fast for Thomas to make sense of it all. "But I want this machine," he said.

"You want it so much, maybe you should buy it," the worker suggested with a grin. Patting the dolly, he added, "Since you’re such a nice kid, I'll even help you move it to your dorm room."

"How much?" Thomas asked.

* * *

The worker named a price. It was everything Thomas had in the world. His thoughts darted from skepticism to hope and back again. What could God provide? Would it be something like insider information? Would it be something like success against his enemies? Or would it be something without a name, something he could feel but never say?

Was it worth everything he had?