The extravagance of choice by Rev. Stacy Swain
After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” But Abram said, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.” But the word of the Lord came to him, “This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.” He brought him outside and said, “Look towards heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.
[Jesus said:] “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
“Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them. If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves.
“But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
I have been thinking a lot about choice lately. I think it is because I had an experience this week that really struck me.
I was meeting a colleague friend of mine for lunch. the waiter came by to take our order. Did we want the buffet or something off the menu? We had not noticed the buffet up until that point and so slid out of our booth to check it out. It was a staggering array! There must have been a dozen chaffing dishes with all sorts of heavenly offerings, sometimes two or three different items per chaffing dish.
But we decided to order off the menu and so returning to the table we opened the menu to take a look. I scanned the first page, then the second then the third, it went on and on and it was small print! I needed my glasses. After some vacillating we decided to order off the menu and after a bit more hemming and hawing we each settled in on a dish. Our waiter returned. I went first and told him what I would like. He then asked if I wanted hot and sour, wonton or miso soup with that? “Hot and Sour” I answered. A salad came with it did I want it? “Yes, please.” “What kind of dressing? Ranch, thousand island, vinaigrette, or ginger lime?” “Ginger lime?” Did I want brown rice, white rice or fried rice? “Brown rice, please.” “And could I have some tea as well?” “Hot or iced?” “Hot, please.” What an extravagance of choice.
But before we go any further let us pray. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you O god our rock and redeemer. AMEN
Choice. It’s everywhere. Our culture thrives on it. Not only are there at least three dozen different types of cold cereal in the grocery store but once you decide on shredded wheat you then have a choice of large or small, frosted or unfrosted, cinnamon. It goes on and on.
Our supermarkets are temples to the God of choice. But not just our supermarkets, everywhere you look, everywhere you go. I stopped for coffee before church today and again faced a barrage of choices, hot or iced? Tall, Venti or Grande? Room for milk? Bold or mild brew?
Why do we love choice so much? Why do we manufacture this smorgesboard choice at every turn? What does it say about us?
Being able to decide is a sign of having made it, of being in control, of being free.
And that is true. We can point to countries with authoritarian governments or dictators and see how few choices exist for those country’s citizens. One of things that makes prison so confining is not just the lock on the door but the absence of choice, of not having any control over what happens each day.
So choice is a sign of freedom. Of having some power in our lives, of having some control. No wonder we love choice. And I think it is also implies that we have the ability to meet our needs. To fill our lives with satisfying, rewarding options.
And so we set out making dozens and dozens of choices every day and mostly we do alright, but the irony in this plethora of choice and the message of empowerment and control it brings is that if we take the time to really think about it, it turns out that we are not in control of and do not have a choice in, what is arguably the most important thing that there is and that is our very life. This earthly life is something that was given to us. We did not choose to be alive. And we do not choose that our hearts continue beating, our blood circulating and lungs filling with air. And when it is time, most of us will have little say when this precious life will be taken from us and that too is not for us to choose. For many this can be a really unnerving, fearful thought actually. We don’t want to think about the precious and ephemeral really this gift of life is, and so we scurry back into that which we can control and seek confront in the power of deciding on brown rice, or white or fried rice.
But little lives filled with countless but actually meaningless choice is not what God had in mind of us. I believe when God gave us these precious moments of life. This glorious gift of being alive. God I think had something much bigger in mind for how we are to live, for how we choose to fill our days, and our minds and our hearts than what our cultural messaging may be telling us.
Let’s turn now to the scripture and listen for its word to us. Both passages for today began a command from God not to be afraid. We have noted before that this phrase is the often repeated phrase in the Bible. Why? Well maybe because it is a message that we need to hear it the most. And why is that? Because we human beings are a fear filled lot.
The hard thing is I think we bury our fear under this guise of control so deeply that we may not even be in touch with it. But let’s try for a moment. Take a moment will you in the embrace of us gathered here, what are you afraid of? What anxiety, deep heart ache, painful longing, what fear lies deep inside your heart? Are we afraid that there will not be enough? That we are not enough? Are we afraid of failing? of making a fool of ourselves? Are we afraid of getting old and of aging. Where is that place of fear within you to which God through our scripture is speaking? What does it look like?
For Abram, he was afraid that he would die without a child an heir to carry the family lineage forward – that his living would have been all for naught. That nothing would live on after him. He was getting on in age and so was Sarah. He is so afraid in fact that he has put together a contingency plan but it does not bring him comfort. He is still fearful. Now, what I find really remarkable about this passage is that Abram tells God flat out about his fear. We often hide our fear right, but Abram does not. I find that instructive.
And then, I find what comes next to be so beautiful, for God brings Abram outside. God takes Abram from this place of being stuck within the machinations of his fear, outside of the smallness of his dwelling place, there in his heart, there in within the confines of the tent of his making, and brings Abram outside and reorients Abram to the vastness of the cosmos. “Look towards Heaven, and count the stars if you are able to.”
And then God assures Abram that his life is to be lived out on this scale. This night sky full of such wonder and beauty is as his life will also be.
Now with the brilliance of the night sky over him and this staggering assertion hanging there in the air, Abram has a really important choice to make. A choice that it turns out will actually lead him into the life that God envisions for him. The choice before him, the choice Abram makes that day, is whether to trust God, or not. Whether to step out of his fear and into trust or not. So what does he choose? Listen again to scripture “And he believed the Lord.” Abram chooses to trust God. Abram does not know how God’s vision will come to pass. And he may even feel somewhat doubtful or uncertain, but none the less, He chooses to trust God.
And we hear the same message from the Gospel :[Jesus said:] “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. As if to say, “Do not be afraid, come on out and see beautiful things God has in store for you.”
These words, this command to not be afraid, this invitation to choose to trust instead, are meant not just for Abram, not just for the community of followers gathered around Jesus that day. These words are for us too. For this community of followers gathered around Jesus this day.
What if we took these words to heart? What possibilities exist? What vision, what kingdom lies waiting for us on the far side of our fear? What expansive, beautiful, breath taking living will trust lead us into?
The 28th of August marks the 50th anniversary of the march on Washington and King’s “I have a dream speech.” There is a lot that is remarkable about King, but what I find so deeply compelling about him is how his remarkable courage, and persistence in the midst of opposition, his tirelessness keeping at, all of it came from his conviction that he was living out of God’s vision unfolding in his time.
Listen to this excerpt from his Mountaintop speech that he made in Memphis shortly before his assassination.
Something is happening in Memphis; something is happening in our world. And you know, if I were standing at the beginning of time, with the possibility of taking a kind of general and panoramic view of the whole of human history up to now, and the Almighty said to me, “Martin Luther King, which age would you like to live in?” I would take my mental flight by Egypt and I would watch God’s children in their magnificent trek from the dark dungeons of Egypt through, or rather across the Red Sea, through the wilderness on toward the promised land. And in spite of its magnificence, I wouldn’t stop there.
Strangely enough, I would turn to the Almighty, and say, “If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the 20th century, I will be happy.”
Now that’s a strange statement to make, because the world is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land; confusion all around. That’s a strange statement. But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars.
And then of course he goes on to talk about the time before them, the promise it hold, the import of it all, as part of the unfolding of this cosmic sweep of God’s justice making, kingdom building work in history. And he asks those gathered not to be afraid, but to be a part of what it is God is doing.
So in the midst of our countless choices, I think we have a choice to make. And I think it is a very important one. Can we choose to let go of our fear, in whatever form that fear may take. Can we let God bring us outside of the smallness of our living, in what ever form that smallness may be taking? Can we choose to trust in God’s vision of peace and justice, and do our part in whatever small and big ways that may be to live into and help make that heavenly kingdom an earthly reality in the unfolding of our time?
If we could make but one choice, let it be this one, and let us make it, over and over and over again. Amen