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The Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe

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Awkward Choices

Key Passage: Deuteronomy 30:19

Category: Bishop's Sermons

Speaker: The Rt Rev Mark D.W. Edington

Tags: faith, discipleship, choice

If you pay close attention to the preachers you hear, you will know that every one of us has a bag of tricks we carry around with us. Some of us keep just a few on hand, like those intrepid golfers who go out for a day on the course carrying just three clubs. Some of carry around huge bags of ridiculously elaborate tricks just in case an occasion comes up in which they might be helpful. 

We all have our own bag of tricks—the rector does, and Father Douglas does; you will soon be helping to form a new curate for ministry, and one of the things I am sure he will be doing during his time with you is trying out different preaching tools, deciding which ones to keep for his back of tricks. I am depending on all of you to help him get it right.

Your bishop has a bag of tricks too, and it is no more honorable if I admit to you that I am pulling out one of my most familiar and well-worn tools this morning. Because there is something both wonderfully appropriate and deeply troubling about the Gospel lesson that happens to be appointed for today, this day when we are confirming Quentin and receiving Marta.

Appropriate, because there is no denying that it applies to their predicament this morning—and, by extension through them, to all of us.

And troubling because we have from Jesus this morning a very hard saying indeed, one that is a little hard to hear as “good news.” It is about division, and disagreement, and strife.

So the trick is this: in order to get us to that gospel lesson, I’m going to flee in the opposite direction, into the safe embrace of the words of Moses in the closing chapters of Deuteronomy, and especially this relatively comforting challenge: “Choose life, so that you and your descendants may live.”

Division we don’t much like. But choice—choice we like. If you think about it, having choices is a kind of measure of our success in the world’s terms. The more choices you have, the greater your prosperity.

Or so it would seem. Some of you know that I spent some years of my career running a behavioral science laboratory, working with scholars from a range of disciplines in the social sciences. One of the research findings that had the greatest impact on my thinking had to do with choice and welfare.

The experiment was a simple one: in a grocery store, customers would walk in one day and find one of those tables with samples where you can try what’s in the jar. On some days, there would be twenty-four different kinds of Tiptree jam available for people to sample; on other days, there would be only six jars, just a quarter as many. The same was true on the shelf; twenty-four choices on one day, six on another.

The question was—is there any difference in terms of how many people successfully choose a jam to buy, and leave the store with a jar?

Now, before I tell you what the end was, I’ll tell you the middle. Far, far more people stopped at the table with twenty-four choices to try than stopped at the table with six choices. But here is the funny thing: in the end, quite a few more people left the store with a jar of jam on the days only six choices were available. In fact, ten times as more people.

So, if one measure of welfare for you is having a jar of jam in  your life, then it turns out you are better off having fewer choices than a huge range of choices. And that may be true in more things than jam.

In our culture we associate choice with freedom; our ability to choose is a reflection of our freedom, and the more choice we have the more freedom it feels that we have.

The funny thing is, the more choices we have, the less free we are—because the harder it is for us to choose. The more choices we have, the more protective we are of the freedom we think we have, and the more reluctant we are to accept the limits on our freedom that comes from making a single choice out of the infinite range of possibilities. But of course that means we end up with nothing, other than a kind of empty and meaningless freedom.

When we choose, we absolutely give up some of our freedom. The economists I used to work with had a very apt phrase for this idea, the notion of opportunity costs. It’s the idea that making a choice involves an inevitable tradeoff; you cannot both have, and eat, your cake.

That is the hard edge of what choice means. And brothers and sisters, this is no more abstract theory; this is the stuff we live with every day. We have no choice but to choose every day, no choice but to make choices.

One of the things it means to be human is to have no alternative but to navigate across the landscape of decisions every single day of our lives. Some of them are big and some of them are small, and many of the ones that turn out to be big seemed small when we first met them.

This is the deep wisdom that the writer of Deuteronomy knows. You have to choose. We all have to choose. So for heaven’s sake, choose what God is offering you. Choose a life that fulfills the promise God planted in you. Choose to embrace the person God made you to be—which surely is a person God has made to fully embrace the potential of others, too.

Choose life. Choose the possibility of good.

The gift God gives us is sovereignty over own will. As the rector taught last week, the wisdom of the church knows that there are at least seven big ways that we can misuse and squander that sovereignty. But even so, God will not take it away from us.

God will not treat us as children who cannot yet be trusted with something. God doesn’t change the rules and take away our freedom in order to keep us on the right path. Neither does God abandon us to the worst things our choices can lead us to. God runs after us all the time, trying to get us back on track, and the end, with no choice left, God chooses the cross to block our path toward losing ourselves forever.

So what if we do choose well? What if we do choose to at least try to stay on that path? What if we do choose the path of life and light, the path that follows our loving, liberating, life-giving Lord?

It’s all good, right? We know we’re on that path when everything gets easier. We know we’re on that path when people affirm us more and more often. Or as the preachers with private jets in America will teach you, we know we’re on that path when we get rich.

Well, none of that is true. If it were, many, many more people would probably choose to join along with us.

But this is the deep wisdom Jesus sets before us this morning—and especially before Quentin and Marta. This choice, the choice of discipleship, this is not easy. It will lead to some awkward moments. It will lead to difficult conversations. It will lead to trouble.

Because the world around us, the culture around us, is afraid of anyone certain enough about their path to make a clear, confident, certain choice. When we choose to be disciples, when we choose to walk the Way of Love, it is a costly choice.

We have chosen, and Quentin and Marta are choosing, to live lives guided by a constant awareness of God’s presence in this life we share. We have chosen to be found on the side of justice and dignity of every human being. We have chosen not just to believe that the long arc of history bends toward justice, but to live in a way that bends the arc.

When we make this choice we may find that people we love, people we care about, people we deeply admire cannot understand why we have made this choice. They will tell us we are selling out our freedom. That we are reducing ourselves by clinging to old ideas.

But what we know is that it is serving God and God’s hope that gives us perfect freedom. What we know is that giving ourselves over entirely to the choice for living fully, living lovingly, expands our horizon and elevates our sense of fulfillment.

And we know this, too: When we make this choice, we may give up some ease of life, but in return we gain the amazing, incalculable gift of these people, this remarkable and beloved community of companions along our way.

So Marta and Quentin, we welcome the choice you are making today. We give thanks for it, because it affirms the choice we have made; and we pledge that we will support you in your part of the work you are now taking on, to build up God’s kingdom here and now, and to show all people they are welcome within it. We thank you, and we thank God for you. Amen.