Meet My Friend Jeff

When you do more than scratch its surface, you discover a treasure-trove of faithful living concealed deep under the weight of the Eighth Commandment’s thunderous prohibition against theft.

As I suggested last Sunday, the Spirit through the Eighth Word compels hard questions – pondering and wondering if people richly blessed with lots of money, most of whom mostly spending their money on themselves, are guilty of a form of passive theft, simply by virtue of holding back with a death grip those resources at hand that easily and painlessly could be shared with others in need.

But blessedly so, the Eighth Commandment spurs you and me to generosity, encourages us to share, give, donate, and offer freely and joyously. No. 8 balances the scales of wrong-taking and right-possessing. Which seems to be a big part of the problem for the early church in Ephesus!

In this morning’s Word of the Lord, the apostle Paul writes with a bracing reminder that, even within the Christian community, we regularly need to challenge each other to greater generosity. Paul, of course, is more direct: “Stop your stealing.” Thus there must have been, on account of Paul’s letter, scoundrels in the Ephesian church who were actively stealing!

Paul is light on details, but odds are that the Ephesian church isn’t home to active rings of bank-robbers and purse-snatchers. So maybe the “thieves” that Paul has in mind are guilty of more subtle forms of theft – like laziness, though which people leech off the community without ever giving back. Or maybe it was selfishness – well-heeled folks whose deep pockets are tightly sown shut and securely sealed up. They are “well off,” yes, but not necessarily “well-to-do” when it comes to actually doing something sacred and holy with the heft of their bank accounts.

Regardless of the particulars that surround their thieving reality, what astounds is headline news that thieves are afoot in the cloisters and corridors of St. Paul’s Church of Ephesus. Specifics notwithstanding, Paul’s crime-fighting strategy – surprisingly – relies on honest, faithful work through which to earn a paycheck, in turn though which to have something to share with those in need.

In other words, Doc Paul’s antidote to thieving hands is a more generous spirit.

If you are so generously invested in another, as to want to help him or her in any and every way that you possibly can, then you are vastly less likely to exploit anyone for your own selfish gain. Accordingly, with the Holy Spirit in your corner, your chances of faithfully keeping God’s Eighth Word in its totality are far, far better.

Feel the assurance of heartfelt generosity – as well as a challenge to open-handedness – as you listen for the Word of the Lord:

“Now this I affirm and insist on in the Lord,” Paul writes.

“You must no longer live as the Gentiles live, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of their ignorance and hardness of heart. They have lost all sensitivity and have abandoned themselves to licentiousness, greedy to practice every kind of impurity. That is not the way you learned Christ!

“For surely you have heard about him and were taught in him, as truth is in Jesus. You were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self, corrupt and deluded by its lusts,

and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.

“So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil. Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. (Ephesians 4:17-28)

Meet my friend Jeff – Jeff Fuqua, an affable flat-lander from the great state of Illinois.

Jeff first rang our doorbell maybe five or six years ago. Our then-middle-school son Ryan answered the door and invited him in. Jeff preferred to wait outside until an adult came to the door.

His needs were basic: A place to lay his head, and some food to nourish his body. So, we paid for a couple night’s lodging at the Stoney Creek Inn over on Rossville Road, and we drove together to Fareway to purchase some groceries with a $100 bill that my wife, Julie, and I had squirreled away for such emergency humanitarian use, which included our own sudden, rainy-day needs.

And since that first visit, Jeff’s arrivals have become annual rites of summer. This year’s reunion with Jeff came a little later than usual – last weekend to be exact. He sat with Julie in Sunday worship, then he headed back to his hotel room to watch some pro football on TV. By birth he’s a Chicago Bears fan, and he thinks the Dallas Cowboys are overrated. Same goes for Aaron Rodgers. But that Patrick Mahomes kid seems like a decent guy.

By Tuesday Jeff was ready to hit the road again, but there was one more really important thing that he needed: a new pair of walking shoes. For you see, Jeff is homeless, and he doesn’t have a car. He walks everywhere he goes, and his travels take him places far and wide across the Midwest. Shoes are his stock in trade – size 13, to be exact, and he prefers Sketchers.

Ever try to find size 13 Sketchers walking shoes in northeast Iowa? It’s a tall order!

But finally, at the third store we checked, Jeff found a pair that fit, and the shoes became my gift to him. At the end of the check-out aisle, Jeff kicked off his old, worn-out shoes, removed the tags from his new pair, slipped them over his size 13 feet, and laced them up snuggly. His old pair went into the now-empty shoebox, which with its worn-out contents went into a nearby trashcan.

The fullness of Jeff’s life story remains a mystery.

He was married for a time, and he has an adult son and daughter whom he hasn’t seen in years. A divorce created some sort of rift that’s estranged Jeff and his children for a decade or more. Like many of life’s relationships, it sounds like things were “complicated,” and his ex-wife’s remarriage somehow or other muddied the waters of Jeff’s fatherhood.

In credit of accomplishment, Jeff earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in social work from the University of Illinois, and he worked as a crisis intervention counselor for troubled teens. These days, though, other than picking up occasional odd jobs and gig work, Jeff doesn’t have a regular job. He’s homeless by choice and to make his way through life relies on the kindness of strangers and the generosity of friends.

I suppose he technically would be counted among the “thieves” of whom Paul writes – one of the rogue scofflaws and panhandlers whom Paul encourages to “labor and work honestly with their own hands.”

And maybe so. But I’ll leave Jeff to work that out with the Lord – as much or more as I work out my own salvation with fear and trembling, on my knees before the Eighth Commandment and its call to generosity, and its naming as “thieves” people who have resources to share but can’t or won’t offer not even one thin dime.

With the God’s Eighth Word firmly in hand, the Holy Spirit reminds that I’ve got, oh, maybe a dozen pair of shoes in my closet – sandals for summer, boots for winter, dress shoes for church, sneakers for the wellness center. And if I can afford that many shoes – and without too much hardship could purchase yet another pair that caught my eye and matched an outfit, then I surely can afford to buy my friend Jeff – when he really need it – a new pair of his only shoes and means of transportation.

Jeff did turn down my offer of some new, heavy-duty hiking socks to go with his new shoes. He said they were too expensive. “I’m not paying 15 bucks for two pair of socks” was his economic assessment of the thick, cotton-fibered footwear. It was yet another memorable adage from a catch-as-catch-can friendship that renews itself annually in the warmth of summer.

Unusual though it might seem, ours is a friendship of double blessing: I to him, and he to me.

As the Lord commands, I’m able to bless him with the very stuff of life – food, clothing, and shelter, because God has blessed me and my family with the very same stuff.  In return Jeff blesses me with the wonder of his experience, the quickness of his wit, the depth of his faith, and the gentleness of his heart. (And he’s got a twinge of an Illinois accent that provides a certain quaint lilt to his speech.)

For me – thanks to the Holy Spirit, it is a sacred privilege to be the hands and feet of Jesus for Jeff. And because of such sharing, I’m further privileged to call Jeff my friend – my brother in Christ, a fellow child of God whose double blessing of friendship and service I shall always cherish.

That’s really what the Lord has in mind with his Old Testament orders to stop the stealing.

That’s really what Jesus is talking about in the New Testament’s greatest commandment to love and serve God, friend, neighbor, and stranger.

That’s really what the Commandments and the Gospels are all about: Creating open hands and generous hearts. Double blessings, the Word of the Lord.

Bread for the world, thanks be to God!

Pastor Grant M. VanderVelden shared this message during worship on World Communion Sunday, October 1, 2023. It is the 10th in his current series on The Ten Commandments.

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