A congregation of the United Church of Canada
Yr A ~ Pentecost 6 ~ Genesis 25:27-34
I was a big fan of the sitcom called “How I Met Your Mother.” In one of the final episodes the lead character, a hopeless romantic named Ted, was at a friend’s wedding weekend. During the episode Ted was faced with decision after decision – usually about whether he should pursue this beautiful woman or that one. The voice-over of his inner dialogue showed him weighing his options. Unfortunately for Ted, but fortunately for comedy, over and over again he chooses based on a perceived immediate, pleasurable benefit instead of a more thoughtful reason. Upon each disastrous choice a ghostly apparition of the ‘Lord of the Manor’ where they were staying appears and says, “You have chosen…poorly!” In the end Ted finally makes a smart choice and the ghost says, “You have chosen…wisely!”
It’s breakfast time. You look in your fridge to select one of the following:
a) A piece of chocolate cake.
b) A jar of pickles.
c) Yogurt and fruit.
All of these have their place (unless they’re dill pickles – yuck!), but if you chose letter ‘c’ – you have chosen…wisely!
It’s Sunday morning at 10:30 and you’re trying to decide how to spend your day.
a) Go back to bed.
b) Go for a long walk.
c) Tune into the Faith United worship livestream on YouTube.
No real bad choices in that lot, but if you chose letter ‘c’ – you have chosen…wisely!
Those were easy. What if the choice is harder?
You see the latest, greatest gadget, device, technology, guitar (!) (whatever your passions might see as desirous – that item that you’ve just gotta have) but you don’t have the money to buy it.
a) Talk yourself out of wanting it.
b) Save your money until you can buy it.
c) Put it on your credit card and deal with it later.
A friend or relative on Facebook posts that they think the new mandate to wear a mask in public places is wrong, and many comments and ‘likes’ are in agreement.
a) Scroll by and ignore it.
b) Unfriend them as a matter of principle.
c) Offer a comment with an opposing view.
Like my TV friend Ted, I think the difference between choosing poorly and choosing wisely often comes down to what is guiding your decision making. I’m no sociologist, but it seems to me that often our prime motivation is seeking out what is most immediately pleasurable or easiest rather than choosing something that may involve work, or pain, or hardship, even if it’s the better choice in the long run.
Our society seems to suffer from a gigantic case of ‘instant gratification’.
This isn’t something we invented though. It’s kind of human nature.
Look at the scripture story for today.
Esau and Jacob were brothers – sons to Isaac (the one who wasn’t sacrificed by Abraham a couple of weeks ago) and Rebekah.
Esau was the rugged, outdoors type. Jacob was ‘indoors-y’.
Esau was older (by minutes – they were twins, not identical) but Jacob was more savvy. Jacob was something of a trickster, and early in his life he was not a good or ethical person.
Anyway, the story goes that Esau came in from his work and was famished. Jacob had a stew cooking. Esau asked for some stew. Jacob said, “First sell me your birthright.”
Essentially he’s asking Esau to give up his claim to being first-born, which would also mean to be the one who inherited everything and took over the family upon the death of their father.
Esau, focused only on his immediate ‘felt’ need said, “I am about to die (of hunger); of what use is a birthright to me?” And thus he traded away his birthright, and his eventual inheritance, and his power as head of the household, because he was really hungry.
And the ghost appeared and said, “You have chosen…poorly!”
And consider Jacob’s choice here.
He freely chose to deceive his brother and cheat him. Jacob chose the immediate satisfaction and gratification of acquiring potential wealth and power and apparently didn’t give a second thought to the consequences – that he would disappoint his father, that he would infuriate his brother, that he would so alienate his family that eventually he’d have to flee for his life to escape the wrath of those he’d wronged at the expense of his personal gain.
There is no doubt that Jacob chose…poorly.
You’re probably thinking this is a ridiculous story. I mean, who gives away so much just because they’re hungry?
You’re probably thinking, “I’d never make such a foolish choice!”
Oh really? Are you sure?
Are you certain that you haven’t made foolish choices that satisfied an immediate need without thinking through all the consequences of making that choice?
Are you sure you’ve never given in to the instant gratification of the bright, shiny thing that’s tempting you and have always made the sober, thoughtful, and prudent decision?
Are you confident that when faced with a matter of principle you choose the ‘right’ thing and not just the ‘easy’ or expedient thing?
I think I’d be pretty embarrassed to confess how many times that ghost has appeared in my life telling me I’ve chosen…poorly.
But making the wise and principled choice all the time is really hard – because those principles bring consequences.
As a society and a church we’re facing some of these choices, and consequences, right now.
How do we manage this time of coronavirus pandemic?
How do we balance our own desires and needs for instant gratification with our obligations to do our part to lower the risk of infection for people who may be more vulnerable than us? I mean, I’m a pretty healthy middle-aged guy. I’m pretty low risk for catastrophic effects if I were to get Covid-19. So I could probably go out and do whatever I wanted without much personal risk.
But should I?
Should my own needs or desires outweigh doing what’s right?
Doesn’t that “love thy neighbour” thing apply?
We would be repeating Jacob’s and Esau’s errors if generally we were to stop staying home in self-isolation and ignore the gathering restrictions because we miss people and want things back to normal.
We would be repeating Jacob’s and Esau’s errors if we were to insist that the church reopens despite the health risk for fear of losing the church due to finances – or to lay off staff because we’re more worried about bottom lines than relationships or living out our faith.
(No, I’m not saying economic realities don’t matter. They do. And yes, sometimes things do come to the point of requiring those kinds of impossibly hard decisions. I’m just worried about our quickness to jettison people to save a buck.)
Make no mistake. Many churches will not survive this pandemic.
That one fundraiser that has kept the place going all these years – what if it can’t safely happen?
That’s our equivalent to Esau feeling famished.
“I’ll die if I don’t eat!” he said.
“The church will close if we don’t meet!” we say.
That choice cost him his birthright.
What might our choices to reopen churches too soon, or to abandon our principles, cost us?
Just to be clear, we here at Faith United are not re-opening for worship anytime soon – nor are we getting any pressure from anyone to re-open, or to furlough anyone. Our community of faith has been very understanding and very supportive of Council’s decisions. Thank you for that. We know it’s the right choice – even as it’s hard – even as it’s costly.
How do we find the strength to make the harder choice and set aside our need for instant gratification? Some people can do it with willpower. I’m happy for them, but I’m not one of them!
For me it’s about trying to constantly keep front and centre the principles and ethics that my faith has revealed to me – this thing we call the Way of Jesus, being a disciple of Jesus, striving to grow in Christlikeness.
And for me the best way I have learned to do that is through the experience of our friend Jacob.
Yeah, the same guy who tricked his brother Esau.
After the birthright incident Jacob went on to trick his father Isaac into giving his parental blessing – which was meant for Esau – to Jacob himself instead.
It was a step too far, and resulted in Jacob fleeing for his life and leaving behind his family and everything he had. While trying to run away from his mistakes, desperate and alone, Jacob eventually laid his head down on a stone to sleep and had his famous ‘ladder’ dream about how God was actually present with him all the time.
He awakens and says, Genesis 28:16 “Surely the Lord is in this place – and I did not know it!”
And Jacob discovered that this awakening, this realization changes everything.
If you really and truly understand and live with the awareness of God’s Holy Presence surrounding and enfolding you – if you realize that every place and every person you encounter is also filled with God’s Presence, which makes everywhere and everyone sacred – then you’re not left to just rely on your willpower to make your way in the world.
If every deep breath is a sacred reminder that you are immersed in and filled with the love and light of God, then the strength, and fortitude, and wisdom, and courage you need to face life’s hard choices is only a deep breath away.
[take a deep breath]
And then, when you encounter a climate-change denier, or a greed-fueled capitalist, or an anti-mask fool – or when you hear a racist joke, or witness an injustice, or see a disparaging ‘meme’ posted on social media – you have something deep to draw on to help you choose.
You could ignore these things for the sake of keeping the peace by not saying anything and not rocking the boat.
Saying something, even if done with the utmost diplomacy and tact, will usually be met with defensiveness, and probably a pretty nasty counter-attack.
And when the person responsible for the injustice is a family member, or a long-time friend, or a fellow congregant, or your minister, or your boss at work – well, like I said, sometimes our choices are not so easy.
Oh, the right course of action is crystal clear.
There’s no doubt that the injustice should be called out.
Of course it should.
The challenge is whether we’re willing to bear the consequences, or whether we’ll opt for the instant gratification of avoiding the conflict.
*And yes, I acknowledge that sometimes it’s not safe to call out an injustice.*
This is not a binary ‘either/or’ thing.
It’s nuanced, and messy, and fraught with challenges.
I’d like to be able to say that if you just take a deep breath and trust in God’s Presence that everything will work out.
I’d like to be able to say that when you offer the love of God and the light of truth to someone who has erred that they will welcome the correction and the opportunity to grow.
I’d like to be able to say that once you awaken to the reality that you are everywhere and always immersed in God’s Holy Presence that you’d never, even accidently or unknowingly, be a person who perpetuated an injustice.
I wish those things were all true.
I hope they can be true for us, and I trust we will strive to continue to learn, and awaken, and grow as we journey ever deeper into the Way of Jesus.
And maybe that’s the best we can do today.
I can’t just wrap a pretty bow on this and declare it all better.
We are faced with multiple choices every single day – some trivial, some consequential, some dramatic.
Upon what will you draw to help you make such choices?
You have just heard a sermon on making choices and taking the harder, more principled road of faithful integrity compared with taking the easier, less conflicted road of instant gratification.
a) Roll your eyes and decide you’ll just sleep in next weekend after all.
b) File it away in your ‘interesting ideas’ pile for thinking about another day.
c) Take a deep, deep breath.
I pray that you will choose…wisely.