One of the best-known poems of all time is this one by Robert Frost:
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
The poem affirms several things:
That in life we are confronted with choices (“two roads diverged in yellow wood”),
That choices can be difficult (“sorry I could not travel both”),
That once we make a choice often it is impossible to go back (“knowing how way leads on to way”),
That making choices requires discernment and courage (“I took the one less traveled by”)
That our lives are enriched by the choices we make (“that made all the difference”).
I have said before that the “path” or the “way” is one of my favorite biblical images for life. It implies that we are on a pilgrimage; a journey to a holy destination where we are shaped and formed by the experiences, encounters, and decisions we make along the way.
Today’s reading from Psalm 27 mirrors much of what we heard last week from Psalm 91. Each affirms that God is a refuge and strength in times of difficulty; a place to hid and find safety. But Psalm 27 adds another element, another truth: God is also a source for guidance –
Show me your way, O Lord,
Lead me on a level path,
because of my enemies.
We look to God for guidance most especially when the chips are down, the stakes are high, and the potential consequences severe.
Look at two of this morning’s readings. Abraham is deeply concerned about his legacy. How is he to secure a future for God’s people if he himself cannot even father a child? In what the theologian Rudolph Otto called a “numinous” experience – a rare, unmistakable, mystical encounter with the Holy Other – Abraham comes to see that his offspring will be more numerous than the stars. He comes to believe and to trust that this is where his “path” will lead and he comes to rest in this hope.
The Gospel reading brings us to a moment in Jesus’ life where the path in the wood diverges in several directions, none of which are particularly attractive options:
He can stay where He is and be seized by Herod, who wants to kill Him,
Or He can continue on the path toward Jerusalem, which He suspects will end in conflict, confrontation, and crucifixion,
Or He can head for the hills, run and hide, which will be the denial and rejection of what He has discerned His call in life to be.
Have you ever been in a situation like this; a situation where the hand you have been dealt offers you not even one winning card to play? I have. And I have come to know the power and the dignity of getting to choose the card you want to play and embracing the consequences of your decision.
You see, the path or the way that God will show you is not always an escape route. It is not about divining the direction God has already decided you should take. In the bible, the path has less to do with where your feet are and more to do with where your heart is.
Consider the psalm which falls in the canon just before today’s reading, Psalm 26:
Give judgment for me, O Lord,
for I have lived with integrity; *
[a literal translation would be “I have walked in my wholeness”]
I have trusted in the Lord and have not faltered.
[literally, “I have not stumbled”]
Test me, O Lord, and try me; *
examine my heart and my mind.
For your love is before my eyes; *
I have walked faithfully with you.
[literally, “I shall walk in your truth”]
[now note how the psalmist’s chosen path for his feet has been to avoid corruption, but also note how that choice has affected his heart]
I have not sat with the worthless, *
nor do I consort with the deceitful.
I have hated the company of evildoers; *
I will not sit down with the wicked.
[so where does the psalmist’s footpath lead and how does that contribute to the formation of his heart?]
I will wash my hands in innocence, O Lord, *
that I may go in procession round your altar,
[an expression that suggests the path or the way leads to a clear conscience.]
Singing aloud a song of thanksgiving *
and recounting all your wonderful deeds.
Lord, I love the house in which you dwell *
and the place where your glory abides.
Do not sweep me away with sinners, *
nor my life with those who thirst for blood,
Whose hands are full of evil plots, *
and their right hand full of bribes.
As for me, I will live with integrity; *
[or, even better, “I will walk with integrity”]
redeem me, O Lord, and have pity on me.
My foot stands on level ground; *
in the full assembly I will bless the Lord.
When we pray to God asking that the Holy One show us the path to take, the answer always comes back to integrity. God’s answer to us is this: “You decide which path to take based on which one will best enable you to walk with Me and before others with wholeness, with integrity, with a clear conscience.” While for Jesus none of the choices were attractive, the decision was obvious: He chose to walk the path to Jerusalem, not because it was the path with the least pain or the most profit or the greatest potential, but because it was for Him the path of wholeness and integrity.
What does this mean for me and you? Well, for me, here is how the theology of the path guided me when I was in the interview process that brought me to St. Paul’s. If firmly believed that it mattered not to God whether I went to Suffolk or to Seattle, to Tallahassee or to Tippecanoe. God said to me, in effect, “You choose. Each option has its blessings and each has its drawbacks. Rejoice in what is good and be accepting what it not. But know that what matters most to Me is how you live and how you serve in the place you choose.”
Each one of us should be able to say as Paul said in today’s reading from Philippians, “Join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us.” In effect, he is saying my life is a witness and the way I live it is a path for you to follow. He goes on to point out how some people live their lives in a very different way (“their god is the belly, their glory is in their shame, and the minds are set on earthly things”). Those lives offer witness to a different path, a path that eventually leads to destruction. Follow not them, the apostle says, follow me.
Think of someone you admire, someone who has shown you the way. Maybe it was a parent or a grandparent, perhaps a teacher or a pastor. Think of a time when that person was faced with a choice in the yellow wood. How was that person’s decision instructive for you? Is it that you should make the exact same choice that he made? Is it that you should follow in her exact footprints on the same physical path? Or was that person’s chosen path instructive because of the internal qualities it manifested? “Dad had integrity,” you might say, “and that is what I want people to say of me.” “Mom always put the needs of others before herself and that is the way I want to be.”
Lord, show us this path. Show it to us through the lives and faithful witness of those around us. Thank you for the example of your Son whose way gives us courage to pick up our own cross and walk before you in wholeness. Strengthen me to be an example worthy for others to imitate.