How Do I Know When to Take the Road Less Traveled? (sermon one in series, “Problem Solved!”)

the-road-not-taken

I.

We begin a new sermon series today with the bold and daring and presumptuous title, “Problem Solved.”  I want to be very quick to say that not any religion has an answer to every individual problem humans may encounter along their life journeys.  Religious literature and religious teachers may have some general comments to make about how to solve problems and so forth, but there is not in the literature of the world’s great religions an answer to every problem that modern people face.

We cannot help calling to mind the criticism that Marx made of Christianity and all religion for that matter:  “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”  Well, in many respects, it has been that. We in the Christian part of the religious world have wanted our religion to be a problem solving one. We many of us have wanted to flip open the Bible to key passages that will explain things to us in black-and-white in no uncertain terms–what we should do in challenging and complicated and compromising situations.

I could go on and on about that, but it is not what today’s time is for. Still I think it’s important to say that as a prelude to this:  namely, whatever problem we find a solution to in the next several weeks is not necessarily a permanent solution or a universal solution to every similar problem that will ever happen for the rest of time. And, oh yes, by speaking of time, aren’t you glad that we all made it passed the Mayan apocalypse? I mean either the Mayans were incorrect or they ran out of calendar space as one Native American suggested to me; or the apocalypse occurred, and this is the aftermath of it. Well, it’s not so bad is it? It seems very much like life before the apocalypse hit.

Please take my disclaimers to heart.  I’m not here to encourage you to use writings, scriptural or not scriptural, or my advice or the advice of anybody who writes from a religious or helping point of view to answer your challenges or the various issues we’re going to be looking at over the next several weeks. I have been a severe critic in many ways of Robert Schuller’s “possibility thinking” approach to life and faith.  He, naturally, was very much influenced by his mentor’s perspective and approach. Norman Vincent Peale, in the same religious tradition as Schuller, preached the power of “positive thinking,” and as I just mentioned Schuller’s adaptation was possibility thinking.

It isn’t a horrible thing and has some, well, possibilities, but it can be horribly shallow and escapist.  One Schuller sermon I encountered in seminary had the title, “Turn Your Scars into Stars.”  Blechk.  That whole approach often encourages people to try to grasp something positive while ignoring the negative. In other words, for example, this approach might encourage somebody to bypass the painful process of grief to get very quickly to the other side where there is some light and relief from the pain while essentially pretending that the grief never was there or never should’ve been there.

That said, if there are resources within holy writ and in religious traditions and in secular helping literature then we should bring all those to bear on helping ourselves and one another cope with this or that challenge life tosses our way. And it is in that spirit that we move ahead with the series by getting on with today’s sermon in particular, which raises the question, “How do you know when you should take the road less traveled?”

II.

To quo or not to quo, that is the question.  When do we follow the crowd, and when must we risk, when must we brave blazing trails alone or with no more than a handful of fellow travelers?  For many of us, except the rebels at heart, it’s typically easier to follow the crowd and, thus, much more complicated and gut-wrenching to make our own way.  Maybe there’s a pathway barely, rarely taken, or maybe no pathway has yet been established but must be.  Which is the most suitable, helpful, healthful way for us to go?

There is no formula for making this determination, but there are a number of items to consider in making these decisions that come around for us frequently.  Deciding which path to take is not a rare situation in which to find ourselves.  It’s a part of life all along the way.

One of the frustrations for progressives and liberals who want to make Jesus in their own image, and that is something that people of all theological stripes within Christendom, from conservative to liberal, tend to try to do, is that Jesus definitely was an apocalyptic-oriented person. He truly believed that God would intervene into human history to bring down evil once and for all and establish a moral, peaceful kingdom eternity. However, the divine intrusion that Jesus and many of his contemporaries anticipated was going to be unpleasant for most, to say the least.

With that in mind I ask you to look with me at a teaching session in which Jesus was talking about choosing the proper pathway in life, and by all means his apocalyptic sensibilities were in the background of what he said.  Still, the clear emphasis is on living in this world in the here and now.

Jesus had just given his teaching on the Golden Rule as Matthew has sewn his collection of Jesus’ sayings and events together.  What could be more earthly and down to earth than a simple to say and hear moral principle that tells us in all our dealings with others, when we are in a position to act of our own volition, we should treat them the way we would want to be treated were we in the position in which they find themselves.  But how challenging and how rare.  Even the Bible thumpers who claim to believe the Bible cover to cover certainly know of this teaching, and many of them–along with many of us out and out ignore it.  Many of them and many of us have no intention of following it either.

Now, again according to how Matthew’s Gospel ordered things, right on the heels of his sermon section on the Golden Rule comes this teaching about which pathway one chooses in life: “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.”

Jesus said according to my summary or paraphrase there are two ways anybody can go in life. It doesn’t matter what religious commitment you have if any. It doesn’t matter what your cultural connection is. It doesn’t matter what your nationality it. This is a reality across the board, a truly universal teaching from Jesus. There’re two possible ways everybody can go according to Jesus’ perception. One is what he called the broad way; this is the way most people choose.  It is an easy choice, the default option.  It is the way of self-centeredness, power-grubbing, the way where there’s a  willingness to step on others when that furthers our cause. It is a way of living as if the love at the core of the universe, which some of us call God, is not a part of human experience at all. Every person is out for herself or himself.  If this leads to war, fine.  If this leads to poverty for many, fine.  If this leads to the abuse of the earth, fine.  If this calls for lying, fine.  It’s all fine as long as I succeed in furthering me. Selfishness is the name of the game. It’s all about me at home, at work, at church.

But there’s this other way one can choose.  Not many have or will, but it is a distinct option.  Jesus called it the narrow way. He said, again, there are very few who find it as if it is not something that is clear to those who expect possible pathways to just sort of fall open before them.  The narrow way would be the opposite of what I just described as the broad way.  It is other oriented. Ties right in with the Golden Rule, doesn’t it?  The narrow way is a mindful, self-aware pathway.  It is a way of existing and acting that grows out of love at the core of the universe; people on the narrow way makes choices in the power of that love in order to make a positive difference to others, to the habitat, and to self.  Notice that “self” isn’t first on the list.

I can’t help thinking of psychologist Abraham Maslow’s concept of the self-actualized person as an example of someone who finds the narrow way. Jesus found the narrow way.  In modern times we would name Gandi and King and the Dalai Lama as those who were or are on that narrow way.  But it doesn’t have to be a well known, widely influential person. There’re those who find the narrow way very quietly, and no one other than they themselves and the people with whom they come to contact privately know that they are pilgrims, seekers on the narrow way.

Another distinction that we would make between the broad way and the narrow way is that the people on the broad way are headed toward destruction whether they know it or not, and I don’t mean hellfire and damnation; that is, they believe they know exactly what they need to know, all they need to know to get where they want to be.  And they do.  It’s all about them.  What happens, though, when big bunches of self-centered people get together?  The most selfish among them, the most unscrupulous finally destroy the weaker ones.  Remember.  There’s no sharing and little caring on the broad way.

People who are following the narrow way are not sure where they’re headed.  They live life one step at a time.  They are not headed toward what selfishly pleases them.  They are looking out for the well-being of others along the way.  They are open to new information and new meanings and new pulls on their heart strings.  Their destination is absolutely unclear. But it is a way that does not lead to destruction.  You may invest yourself, all of you there is, in the well-being of others, but I don’t think of that as destruction of self.

III.
Abraham, the ancient Hebrew credited with conceiving of monotheism, believed once upon a time that God called him to leave his home, his place of comfort for reasons of practicality and spirituality to find a new place to live, and the storyteller says the oddest thing about Abraham and his clan as they left because they believed God was urging them to leave.  The storyteller said, “They knew not where they were going.”  There’s a positive side to that for seekers.  Seekers on the narrow way have no maps and don’t expect them.  Psychiatrist Scott Peck, author of THE ROAD LESS TRAVELED said, “If we know exactly where we’re going, exactly how to get there, and exactly what we’ll see along the way, we won’t learn anything.”

Today, my task may not be very demanding.  Tomorrow, on the narrow way if I have the grit to travel it, my task may be to take a stand for something highly unpopular, but right, and suffer all manner of criticism and ridicule for my audacity.  The next day on the narrow way, someone or someones may have risks to take in service to humanity; their lives may be in danger.   Think, for example, of aid workers who go into war torn areas while the fighting is still on to try to care for the wounded, the displaced, and the dispossessed.
TWO roads diverged in a yellow wood,    

And sorry I could not travel both    

And be one traveler, long I stood    

And looked down one as far as I could    

To where it bent in the undergrowth;            

Then took the other, as just as fair,    

And having perhaps the better claim,    

Because it was grassy and wanted wear;    

Though as for that the passing there    

Had worn them really about the same,             

And both that morning equally lay    

In leaves no step had trodden black.    

Oh, I kept the first for another day!    

Yet knowing how way leads on to way,    

I doubted if I should ever come back.             

I shall be telling this with a sigh    

Somewhere ages and ages hence:    

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—    

I took the one less traveled by,    

And that has made all the difference.  
If I read Frost correctly, in this poem titled THE ROAD NOT TAKEN, not THE ROAD LESS TRAVELED, the road not taken was the likely one, the one most people had chosen–though not by much, the one most travelers to come would choose.  The road his poetic narrator took was the road fewer people had chosen, the one fewer people would choose at that fork in the path in years to come.

Were Frost able to defend his poetic license from the great beyond, he might vehemently deny this, but his poem describes a profoundly spiritual experience, a place along life’s pathway when a serious decision must be made.  In fact, there are several of these right up until we are bidding this world farewell.  Frost lays out memorably for us the reality of the nature of ongoing choices.  Neither of the options in the poem was necessarily or likely a way that would lead to destruction; both options were about the same, but at the fork in the road, one could not go both ways.  Maybe, the next time he came to that fork he would choose the other road, but as many poets and lyricists have reminded us; and as Frost’s narrator knew well, “We may never pass this way again.”

The road less traveled in the teachings of Jesus isn’t potentially the same as the road not taken for the person compelled to live out love in the world, whatever the cost.  Jerry Seinfeld got some big laughs when he quipped, “The road less traveled may be less traveled for a reason.”  I like Seinfeld, and that turn of phrase was funny enough.  Still, when I bring the two road theory into the realm of spirituality and especially when I tie it to Jesus’ teaching about which road to choose, it is a sobering thought and a sobering reality.

There are present and lasting consequences attached to the decisions I make at the forks in life’s roads.  Will I consistently choose the narrow way?  (And, by the way, Jesus’ language here stresses the need to choose regularly, not once and for all.)  Or will I take the easy way out, the mindless option, the crowded roadway?

Always the question in making the decision for those who dare to embrace the ethic of Jesus is this:  Do I live for myself and take the broad way, or do I as a member of the human family live for the well-being of others, not just my own inner circle, and keep risking the narrow way that leads to life at its best–not its easiest but its best?

Well, I dared at the beginning of the sermon today to make this something of a how-to sermon–risky business in a congregation of people who think for themselves.  I’ve given you the basis, though, for making the decision, and I’ve reminded you of Jesus’ warning, if you will, to those who dare to take the narrow way, spiritually speaking the road less traveled.  That warning is:  it is not a popular choice, and it will not be a crowded pathway.  Nor will there be maps; remember that.  At moments, it may well seem that you’re the only one on that road.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, or a in an inner city.  I took the one less traveled by, the one where the hungry and homeless people try to survive and the one where children are taught violence but not from pricy video games.  That decision has made all the difference–for me, for sure; and I hope for some of them as well.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, or at a political dinner where self-centered fat cats with offices on capital hill were happy to take money and connect that money to political promises to better the lives of the upper crusts while ignoring or even diminishing the 48 percent.  I took the one less traveled by, following the likes of St. Francis of Assisi, and say, as did he in his context, “If even my clothing suggests that I approve of what selfish, power-hungry politicians are about, I will strip them off and eventually replace them with Good Will rejects so that my attire may underscore my identification with and care for those whom many of the politicians detest.”  I chose that cold and lonely road, but it has made all the difference.

How do you, how do I, know when to choose the road less traveled?  Easy answer, really.  The answer is:  always.

Amen.

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