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Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Way Less Travelled

Isaiah 9. 1-4; 1 Corinthians 1. 10-18; Matthew 4. 12-23

In 1916, as the horror of the 1st World War unfolded in Europe, the American poet Robert Frost wrote this poem.  Allow me to read it to you.
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, and 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.
Friends, the lure of the well-trodden path is powerful.  In 1914, and again in 1939, the whole of Europe stood at the diverging of two paths.  One path, the path most taken in the history of that continent, led to the darkness of war. The other way, the way less taken, was (and is) the hard way of diplomacy and concession in order to make for peace.  In 1914, and again in 1939, Europe chose war:  the way most familiar, the way that made some winners but most losers, the way that is broad, making for the wholesale slaughter of many millions of lives.  In this, Europe did only what human beings usually do.  It chose the road most taken, the road for those intoxicated by the spoils of war, the lure of power and status and riches.

The members of Paul’s Corinthian church were not immune, it seems, from such intoxications.  Somehow they forgot the simple commandment of Jesus—‘love one another as I have loved you’—and became obsessed with the desire to lord it over each other.  They became like a modern political party, forming factions gathered around charismatic leaders or preachers, each claiming a holier ground than the others.  Each group in the Corinthian church claimed that their version of faith and practice was somehow more authentic than the others, a better expression of the traditions received from the fathers and mothers of the movement.  Which meant, of course, that all the people who did not take such a view were to be regarded with suspicion.  Indeed, with the passage of time and with the application of that lethal cocktail of fear and propaganda, these others became not simply suspicious, but the very face of all that is wrong with the world.  They became the enemy.  And isn’t this how it goes with so many of our churches; or, indeed, with our attitudes to those who come here seeking asylum?   Well, Paul will have none of it.  ‘What has all this lusting for power over and against one another to do with the message of the cross?’ he says.  ‘I came amongst you, not in power or using the arts of persuasive rhetoric to seduce you.  I came only with the message of the cross, which is sheer foolishness to those who lust for power.  But to those of us who are being saved, it is the very power of God’.  Listen to what the apostle is saying:  If we are Christians, if we are followers of Christ and his gospel, then there can be only one power:  the power of love, the power which lays down its power for the sake of including everyone in the wide embrace of God’s love.  The power iconically presented in figure of a crucified God.

You see God, the God of Jesus Christ, is one who takes the way less traveled, the way that human beings seem so very afraid to take.  A way that welcomes and embraces even the sin of another, and bears that sin, the horror of it, the hurt of it, the burden of it, in the hope that love will forge its doggéd way through the morass.  Emmanuel Lévinas, the Jewish philosopher, said famously that the only way in which we may all come to share equally in God’s justice is if we assume that the other, the other human being - any other human being - has a prior claim to our welcome and our service.  Prior, that is, to our own claims upon that person.  This way—the way of a God who wanders lonely though the dark and ritually impure regions of Naphtali and Zebulun, the places where the other may actually live—is the way that leads to light and liberation from oppression for us all.  This way—the way of a pilgrim Christ who wanders these anonymous and unimportant habitations, touching the impure and loving the loveless—this is the way by which the kingdom comes near.  If the God of Christians were a God who pandered to political success or popular opinion, then Christ would not have lived such a marginal existence, and died such a sordid death.  Christ would have marched into Jerusalem with an army of Zealots and taken power by force, and stunned everyone with his Hitleresque rhetoric, and built an empire on the labour of the poor and ritually unclean.  If God were really like that that, then Christ would have taken the way most travelled.

But he didn’t.  And, if we are his disciples, then we shall not either.  We shall take the least travelled way.  The way that looks out for the other, the neighbour, even at deep personal cost.  The way that owns and faces its fear of the other, and of what that other may do to me if I make myself vulnerable.  The way that calls on the power of God in prayer, the power of love, asking that God may do in me and in my relationships with others what I am unable to do for myself.   If we will welcome the other who is God, if we will sit at table and commune with God in prayer, then we shall find—as the English Benedictine John Maine often said—that the power to love even our enemies will grow within.  Not as the result of a personal project, a work of discipline which aims to purify the self by practiced technique or psychological training.  No, this power comes simply by letting God in.  By letting God be in us all that God would be.  And in the Christian tradition, that ‘letting be’ is known as the prayer of quiet.  The prayer which welcomes God in the less-traveled way of the Psalmist who said:  ‘One thing I asked of the lord . . .  to live in the house of the Lord all my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple’.  Here God is welcomed into my space, but immediately overwhelms and transgresses that space so that I find that the tables are turned and it is I, myself, who am being welcomed, I myself who cross a threshold into the superabundant hospitality of God.  

The way less travelled by is the way of the Christ.  He calls us as he called the sons of Zebedee to accompany him on that way.  To leave behind the sin that entangles, to be welcomed by God, that we may have power to welcome and love even our enemies.  There is no greater seducer than the God who was in Christ.  There is no greater wielder of power.  But unlike a Hitler, or Jim Jones, or a Jerry Falwell, the power of God is laid down at the feet of the sinner in an ultimate gesture of submission and vulnerability and love.  And the sinner must decide what to do with this vulnerable God.  May God grant us courage to choose the way less travelled by.  For that, and that only, will make the difference—for ourselves, for our church, for our world.

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