(a sermon by Mark Parent)
(delivered at the Pereaux Baptist Church)
(24 October 2010 – Luke 18:9-14)
I am going to start my sermon this morning in a rather different fashion. Rather than the traditional scripture lesson, three points and a poem, I am going to start with the poem and then move to the scriptures.
I got the idea from Tony who introduced us in choir last week to a musical style which originated with Bach’s Mass in B Minor. In this musical piece, Bach turns tradition on its head and rather than starting slowly and leading up to a musical climax, the musical climax is placed at the beginning of the piece.
The poem I am starting with served as the text for this morning’s choir anthem. It is Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken,” which, according to some sources, is the best known poem in the United States. If you recall the words to the anthem, the poem reads like this:
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 marked 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.
At first glance, the poem is rather straightforward. Frost begins by noting that we have to make choices. In this case two pathways which “diverged in a yellow wood.” The poet wants to travel both pathways but knows that he must make a choice, as we must make choices in many, if not all aspects, of life. We must choose what courses to take in school. We must choose whether to marry or not and who to marry, whether to have children, what job to pursue, what house to buy, what car to drive, what clothes to wear, what food to eat.
The preacher, John Claypool writes about a time in his life when he was taken to an all-you-can eat restaurant. He had never seen such a display of food before and Claypool shares that at first he wanted to have one of everything. But even as teenager with a large appetite he soon realized that this was impossible, that he would have to choose.
And this takes us to the second stanza in the poem where the poet looks down both pathways as far as he can see, finding it hard to make his choices. For while, at first, one pathway seemed to be less travelled, “grassy and wanting wear,” on closer inspection, they both looked really to have been worn “about the same.”
Choices are, often, not easy things to make; particularly for some of us like me, as Margie can attest. I agonize over the choices I have to make and then impulsively choose one only to end up wondering if I would have been better off making the other choice.
Once at Staples, a manager asked me “were you always like this” after I had returned an item four times thinking, after more research on the Internet, that the other brand was better. I told her that I had gotten worse since my wife Cathy died but that, to be truthful, finding myself second and third guessing even the simplest of choices was, unfortunately, part of my personality.
I resonate, then, with the story of the young boy who was hired by a local farmer to divide his potato crop into three piles – small, medium and large. After a few hours the farmer came back to check on the boy and the boy declared that he was quitting.
“What is the matter,” the farmer asked, “is the work too hard for you?”
“No,” the boy replied, “but the choices are killing me.”
And this brings us to the third stanza of the poem which notes that our choices have consequences. Having decided to walk down one path we know, instinctively, that we will probably not have the opportunity to walk down the other since “way leads on the way,” as the poet puts it and we will probably “not come back” to that same location again.
There is an arrow to time’s flow, according to the scientists, or as the Greek philosopher Heraclitus puts it we never step in a flowing stream in same place.
This brings us to the fourth and final stanza of Frost’s poem, where he ties everything together as he states, “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.”
Now, on first blush the message of the poem is straightforward. It lauds the courageous individual who is willing to taken the road less travelled and because of that looks back on a life well lived. This is typically how this poem is interpreted and probably accounts for its popularity in the United States with its emphasis on the rugged individual wresting control out of the western wilderness.
Baptized by the Christian community, the message is similar, “don’t be afraid of following Christ, of taking the road less travelled because this pathway is the most satisfying in the end.”
The problem is that such interpretations hinge on the interpretation of the word “sigh” as a sigh of relief that one had the courage to choose the road less travelled. But what if the word “sigh” is taken in its normal meaning, the meaning of regret? Then the message gets turned completely on its head and does not support the typical interpretation of the poem or its Christianized version.
And there is some evidence to suggest that Frost may have meant for the word to be taken in a negative fashion or, more likely, at least not in a positive sense but in an ambiguous one. After all Frost noted that of all his poems this poem was, as he put it a very “tricky” one.
But if taken in this ambiguous fashion, does it then mean that the poem, rather than be a paean of praise to the courageous individual, becomes a cynical statement that all choices are ambiguous in the end, that we are condemned always to second guess ourselves without ever knowing if the choice we made was the “right” one?
I think not, although some literary exegetes would disagree. In my understanding of this poem, while one needs to accept that it is a tricky poem, that is, that it does not say what it seems to say, one does not, therefore, need to end with a pessimistic interpretation.
And the reason why I make such a statement is because the poem was elicited by an afternoon stroll which Frost made with a friend of his. The two encountered a fork in the path, just as in the poem, and had to make decision. Now we don’t know what happened next but if Frost’s friend or Frost himself was like me, he spent the whole of the walk wondering whether or not the other pathway would have been the more pleasant one and this is spite of the fact that both paths led to the same end which was sitting by a warm fire enjoying a nice drink together after an afternoon stroll.
If my interpretation is right, and some critics agree, the poem is not saying that we must make good choices or we will pay for them in the end. Or that we must make choices and are condemned never to know if they were the right ones or the wrong ones. Instead, the poem is saying that we worry too much about our choices, we put too much importance on our choices and where they will lead us. That instead, of worrying about this choice or that choice, we need to learn to relax and enjoy the journey rather than focusing on whether the choice we made was better or worse than the other choice.
And this then leads into our gospel lesson for this morning which is a short story about two individuals who go up to the Temple in Jerusalem to pray. One individual, a tax collector, a despised profession in those days as in our own, dares not even look heavenward and calls upon God to be merciful to him as a sinner. The other individual, a Pharisee, a religious person, has no problem approaching the Temple because he feels he is a good person, particularly in comparison to the tax collector. He fasts, gives his tithe, worships regularly.
No doubt this story is based on an actual incident which Jesus observed in one of his trips to the Temple and, as he reflected on it, it became to Jesus a statement about the importance of leading a humble life. Jesus concludes the story with these words, “for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
What is it about humility that Jesus found so praiseworthy? Indeed, Jesus even went so far as to claim that the humble person is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And some biblical commentators have suggested that the word “poor in spirit” in the beatitude “blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” is better translated as “blessed are the humble for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
I think a clue to why Jesus found humility to be so praiseworthy can be found in Frost’s poem. You see, the humble person is not focused on him or herself. The Pharisee, not being humble, was focused on himself. “I am a good man. I am praiseworthy. I am righteous.” It was all “I” in the Pharisee’s mind and one wonders why he even bothered going to the Temple.
In contrast, the humble person is focused outward on the other. The humble person does not waste a lovely walk through the woods on a bright autumn day, when wood is yellow as Frost wrote, worrying about his or her choice of pathway. But rather, because he or she is humble and not self focused, not narcissistic, he or she enjoys the walk, the beauty of the brightly colored leafs overhead; the crunch of dry twigs underfoot, the crisp air and the company of a good friend.
In short, the humble person is able to see the grace of God which permeates all life.
You cannot understand or be filled with grace when your focus is on yourself. You may have to focus on self enough to realize your need of God, as the tax collector did, but quickly the focus shifts to God, to God’s mercy and to God’s forgiveness.
And once this focus shifts from self to God then one begins to live in grace and to see the grace of God which permeates all life.
There is a lovely movie entitled “Babbette’s Feast” directed by the great Danish film director Gabriel Axel. In this film, a French refugee, living with two sisters who are spiritual leaders of a puritanical Calvinist Christian community, wins a lottery prize. Rather than spending the money on herself, the refugee, who was a fmous chef back in her homeland of France, decides to spend it all on a sumptuous feast for the community. The two sisters and the other members of the community, however, begin to worry when they see all this rich food and fine wine being shipped in. They decide that they will partake of the feast but, because of the decadence of the rich food, they will not enjoy it.
However, because the French refugee is such a good cook, such an artist with food, they cannot help themselves, slowly but surely they begin to relax and to enjoy the feast. As they relax and begin to enjoy themselves and the gift the French refugee has lovingly provided for them, they turn to their neighbors and begin to confess the grudges they held and the bitterness they harbored toward the other. Their neighbors, enjoying the feast as well, reciprocate. And suddenly grace, God’s grace, fills this small Danish community with love for each other and for God’s gifts.
One of the participants of the feast is a famous General, Lorens Loewenhielm who as a young lieutenant many years ago was going to marry one of the two sisters who had taken Babbette in as a refugee and now leads this small community. Those many years ago, Lorens felt he was not worthy of her love and of her deep Christian faith and so he left the community. Now, a lifetime later, he is back and the ghosts of what happiness might have been his if he had chosen a different pathway torment him.
Suddenly, in the midst of Babbette’s feast, Lorens has a spiritual insight. He lets go of preoccupation with self and opens his heart to God’s grace and he bursts out with these words:
We have all of us been told that grace is to be found in the universe . . . , but in our human foolishness and shortsightedness, we imagine divine grace to finite. For this reason we tremble. We tremble before making our choice in life, and, after having made it, again tremble in fear of having chosen wrong. But the moment comes when our eyes are opened and we see and realize that grace is infinite.
Grace demands nothing from us but that we shall await it with confidence and acknowledge it with gratitude. Grace makes no conditions and singles out none of us in particular. Grace takes us all into its bosom and proclaims general amnesty. That which we had chosen is given us, that which we have refused is also and at the same time granted us. Aye, that which we have rejected is poured out on us abundantly, For mercy and truth have met together and righteousness and truth have kissed one another.
When we humble ourselves and open our hearts to God’s grace, we can let go of preoccupation with self — our choices, our decisions, our goodness — we can relax and let God be God. We can enjoy the journey through life, knowing that whatever pathway we have taken God is with us and at the end of our journey stands waiting with open arms to welcome us to our heavenly home.