Sermon: “Faithful Choices”
This sermon explores the challenges of ethical decisions and how to separate “right” and “wrong” choices from “faithful” choices.
Isaiah 60:1-6 and Matthew 2:1-12
The story of the magi usually focuses around gifts.
But that is only part of the story.
Today, I want to us to look more closely at another part of the story – the decision they faced as people who were asked to spy on Jesus for the king.
A nearly impossible choice confronted them – betray the tyrant king Herod to save the life of a child who MIGHT turn out to make a difference in the world
save their own lives and give a report to the king.
They could have also given a false report – tell king Herod they’d seen the baby and he wasn’t all that.
But they didn’t do that either.
They visited Jesus, and then after being warned in a dream, they fled and disappeared, never returning to Herod again.
We know how the story ends – how Jesus turns out to be the messiah, the man who is also God incarnate who changes the world forever.
But the magi didn’t know that yet. They may have sensed it, experienced something special when they visited him. But he was still just a child when they encountered him. They had no way of knowing who he would become.
What they DID know was that Herod was dangerous.
By that time, Herod had captured Jerusalem, and his first order of business was to get rid of his predecessors.
He killed 45 prominent leaders, including an elderly man he believed was plotting to overthrow him.
He also drowned an 18-year-old high priest, who was also his brother-in-law, because he thought the Romans would like his brother-in-law better.
He also executed his mother-in-law, his wife, and three of his sons.
Herod created an extensive spy network and eliminated anyone he suspect of revolt, including 300 military leaders that he executed.
He also killed a number of Pharisees who predicted that Herod’s throne would be taken from him and given to Herod’s younger brother.
And of course the Gospel of Matthew speaks to Herod’s extreme paranoia, saying that he was killing all of the babies in Bethlehem and was after Jesus himself.
All this is to say that betraying Herod had the potential to exact a massive cost, a deadly cost. And yet, the magi took that risk.
What a fascinating choice.
How did they arrive that?
I imagine that couldn’t have been an easy call.
Would we have made the same decision?
None of us would want to hurt a child. And yet, if our own life was at stake, would we make the same decision?
I wouldn’t have blamed us if we didn’t.
When it comes to big choices with life-altering consequences, there is rarely an easy answer.
Even decisions that AREN’T life or death can be difficult…
The other day, I decided I wanted to make some brownies, and so I needed some eggs.
I stopped by Smith’s, and since my husband does most of the grocery shopping, I’d forgotten just got overwhelming that place can be.
I only needed two eggs. Any eggs would have been fine.
But here I was, in the back of smiths, with a giant trough full of every type of chicken egg you can imagine.
Grain free / grain FED / cage free / grade A / AA / extra large / brown / locally sourced / brand name and everything in between…
And suddenly, I was faced with a barrage of ethical dilemmas…
Do I buy cage free? Does cage free mean they’re actually treaded humanely? What’s the value of grain fed vs. grain free? What’s the effect of feeding chickens grain anyway? I seem to remember my grandmother’s chickens ate corn. Is corn a grain? And am I helping the corn lobby by buying these? And if I am, is there anything wrong with that?
Some of the eggs were local, but they weren’t cage free. Which is more important? Saving the environment by buying local or loving these creatures whose eggs I’m about to eat by buying cage-free? And do chickens particularly care? And just because they’re cage free, does that mean they’re actually treated humanely? And cage free eggs are twice as expensive – would it be better to just save the two dollars and forget about chicken well-being so that I can give that money to a charity like COGS that is feeding hungry PEOPLE? Or should I forget COGS and drop that 2 dollars in the Salvation army bucket? Or hand it out to the homeless person who’s shivering outside the Smith’s?
All I needed were two eggs…
And if I’m honest, I didn’t even NEED two eggs. I WANTED two eggs, because I WANTED to make brownies. Because it had been a stressful week, and chocolate sounded really good.
But suddenly, I was faced with a barrage of ethical questions.
And that was just in the 10 minutes I was at the store buying ONE thing.
There are hundreds of compelling forces that tug at us. Our faith, our love for the environment, the ethical treatment of animals, our time, the use of our money and how it impacts the world – animals and people alike… and our cravings for chocolate.
And this is a tiny example. We face much more difficult decisions regularly.
Not unlike the magi, the “wise men,” we are often tasked with choosing between two risky options, between two less than perfect options.
Do we keep a friend’s confidence, for example, or do we betray it, because our friend is in trouble and they need help?
Do we tell the truth when it means we might hurt someone’s feelings, or do we tell a “white lie,” because that person needs a word of hope or happiness today?
Do we vote for the “lesser of two evils” in an election (assuming we don’t like the main party candidates) or do we vote our conscience, knowing our candidate is unlikely to win?
I want us to take a moment to remind us that in cases like this, there are no “right” choices.
Let’s release ourselves from our harsh self-judgement for a moment – those voices in our lives and in our own brain that tell us we made the “right” or the “wrong” choice.
What’s important is not that we make the “right” choice – there’s no way to predict the future and know what choice WILL be “right”— what’s important is that we make FAITHFUL choices.
When it comes to difficult ethical choices, there is rarely a clear “right” or “wrong” answer.
Even with the eggs in the supermarket – there is no “right” or “wrong” choice.
But there are FAITHFUL choices.
The magi were faithful to their belief in this new king, this child they believed would change the world for the better. They chose to be faithful to him instead of being faithful to their own safety. Or faithful to the tyrant king.
Other spies of Herod may have made different choices. They may have chosen to stay safe, and live another day. Perhaps THEY made a difference in their own lives or in the lives of people they were close to.
I imagine there were other people who were asked to spy for Herod who ended up feeding him misinformation, distracting him from the events happening in that stable in Bethlehem.
All of those were faithful choices.
And I hope they were made with some careful discernment.
Discernment is a word Christians use to describe the process of taking time to examine where our values line up with God’s values before making choices.
It’s different from weighing pros and cons.
Instead, we pray, we examine our motives, we remember our values, we meditate on where we believe God might be calling us, and THEN we make a choice that is faithful to what we discover.
Henry Nouwen explains: “Discernment is about listening and responding to that place within us where our deepest desires align with God’s desire. As discerning people, we sift through our impulses, motives, and options to discover which ones lead us closer to divine love and compassion for ourselves and other people and which ones lead us further away.
Discernment reveals new priorities, directions, and gifts from God. We come to realize that what previously seemed so important for our lives loses its power over us…To our surprise, we even may experience a strange inner freedom to follow a new call or direction as previous concerns move into the background of our consciousness.”
My invitation to us this week is to embrace this practice of discernment when it comes to difficult choices, remembering that there is no “right” choice or “wrong” choice. I invite us instead to make “faithful” choices.
My other challenge is to forgive ourselves for past choices, choices that were faithful and choices that were not, knowing that God also forgives us for unfaithful choices as well.
Ever day, God gives us new opportunities to make faithful choices. So let’s release ourselves from the self-judgment and begin afresh with new faithful choices.
Speaker: Rev. Sarah TevisTownes
January 7, 2019
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