Texts: Joshua 24:1-2, 14-18; John 6:56-69
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.
Both of our texts this morning are about the big moments of choice. The scene from Joshua 24 is a covenant renewal ceremony. It is that moment when Joshua gathers the tribes of Israel to ask the poignant question, “Whom will you choose to serve; the gods of your ancestors or the One true God of Israel?” It is a defining moment and the path the Israelites choose will shape and define their future. The place of choice is significant. Joshua has gathered together all the tribes of Israel at Shechem, the place where, long ago, God had appeared to Abram and promised the gift of the land. Abram built there an altar, the first sanctuary to Yahweh in the land of promise. It is also the place that God designated as a city of refuge, a haven that interrupts and transforms a landscape marred by violence and revenge. Now, gathered in this city – the place that orients the people to the boundary between justice and mercy and beside the altar that commemorates God’s revelation and promise – Joshua puts the choice before the people of Israel. “Choose this day whom you will serve – the gods of your ancestors or the One true God of Israel.” It is an epic moment of choice for an entire people.
The scene from John 6 is a bit more perplexing and mysterious, but nevertheless a story of momentous choice. Chapter 6 of the Gospel of John opens with two familiar stories from the synoptic Gospels: the feeding of the multitude and Jesus walking on water. After the telling of the stories, John presents two dialogues, first with the crowd and then with the Judean officials about the meaning of the miracle of the feeding and about Jesus’ true identity. As is often the case with John, small, ordinary words such as bread and life become layered with theological meaning. Jesus provided bread, but his bread is not like the manna that God provided in the wilderness or the bread that the 5,000 had eaten on the hillside; this bread is himself, his very life; and those who eat it “will live forever.”
In the final scene, where we enter the text, the conversation shifts from an external debate to an internal struggle among Jesus’ followers. The text tells us that some are murmuring among themselves; “We don’t get it.” “This teaching is too difficult; who can accept it?” “What does he mean when he says, “you have to eat the bread of my body and drink the cup of my blood”? To those listening the notion must have sounded as cannibalistic to their ears as it does to ours. No wonder the disciples were confused and looking around for another path. I can’t say that I blame them. Quickly, the scene had shifted from entertaining and exciting miracles to eerie language of eating flesh and drinking blood. Watching as his would-be followers peeled off in different directions, Jesus presses the question to the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” It was another defining moment of choice.
We live in a world in which we are inundated with choices. I was sharing with the lectionary group this week one of my humbling stories of choice. Several weeks ago I went to the grocery store to buy some cereal. I went with the clear intention to buy my usual brand, Honey Nut Cheerios. You know, they’re healthy – good for your heart and cholesterol – the box says so. But as I was about to reach for my Cheerios, another box of cereal caught my eye – Frosted Mini Wheats. That white sugar coating looked good. But just as I was about venture beyond my Cheerios and grab that box of Frosted Mini Wheats, I saw the Frosted Flakes and the Sugar Pops and the Captain Crunch and all the other fifty boxes of cereal that I knew would taste sweeter and better than my Honey Nut Cheerios or the Frosted Mini Wheats; and all of the sudden I couldn’t make a choice. As I stood staring at the plethora of cereal choices, I found myself struggling to make a choice. And as embarrassing as it is to admit, I will confess to you that I left the Harris Teeter that day empty-handed. I couldn’t make a choice – or at least a healthy choice so I didn’t choose.
But the grocery store is not the only place I feel that way these days. We are a society of almost unlimited choice. At the ice cream parlor we have the choice of 52 flavors. Go to buy a television or computer or phone or any piece of electronic equipment and your choices are mind-boggling. And as overwhelming as it can be to have so many choices in the grocery stores and retail stores and on restaurant menus, I wouldn’t want it to be any other way. I like having choices even when they frustrate me. But choice in American is not just about peripheral things like televisions and computers and ice cream and cereal. No, in America, individual choice is a philosophical ideal that we have sought to protect throughout our history. Today, individual choice is the platform on which important debates over issues like health care reform and a woman’s right to choose are taking place in our country. Democracy holds as one of its highest ideals that we all have the right and the opportunity to make our own choices in our lives. And yet, democracy does not provide us with an awful lot of guidance about how to actually choose. And if we can be overwhelmed by breakfast cereal choices, how much more easily can we be overwhelmed by the much larger choices in life? How do we choose? And is there some foundational choice we make on which other choices are built and lived?
I would argue, based on our scripture readings this morning, there is. The big moments of choice in our lives are shaped and defined by the larger theological question of what God or gods we are choosing to serve.
One of my own big moments of choice came in my early twenties just as I was beginning seminary. I had known from about the age of twelve or thirteen that I was gay. And while I did not grow up in a fundamentalist church or a church that, to my memory, even ever talked about homosexuality, somehow I knew that “the Church” (or at least the Baptists in the South), taught that homosexuality was a sin. I also knew, from attending my childhood church and from my father, that God loved me. It wasn’t, though, until college that I began struggling to reconcile my faith and sexuality. Being a religion major at a Baptist College in the South gave me plenty of opportunity to struggle but with little hope for any reconciliation. I entered seminary in the fall after graduating from college still unclear how my faith and my sexuality could co-exist. Then one day, after sitting in a theology class listening to Elizabeth Barnes talk about the nature of God, I was walking across campus and I realized I had a choice to make. The choice was to fully accept and be the person God had created me to be or to deny myself; and in so doing, deny that I was a beloved child of God, worthy of God’s love just as I was. So that day, I made a choice. I chose to believe that God loved me because of who I was, not in spite of who I was. I chose, that day, to believe in a God whose love and grace is bigger than our prejudice and hate. I chose, on that day, to believe in a God whose justice is about loving one’s neighbor as yourself and welcoming the stranger, feeding the hungry, giving the thirsty something to drink and helping the poor, the oppressed, and the marginalized. I made a choice to leave behind the gods of my ancestors – the gods of the institutional church that taught and still teach that God’s love is conditional, that some are not welcome at the table, and that who we love is more important than how we love.
The big moments of choice matter. And there is a foundational choice we make on which other choices are built and lived. Do we choose the gods of materialism, greed, power, and ego? Or do we choose a God of justice and mercy, of compassion and love? Do we choose the gods of nationalism and militarism? Or do we choose a God who represents one humanity, a God of peace? Do we turn back and run away when things are hard? Or do we stay and make a commitment to the common good: to love our neighbors as ourselves? Do we choose to feed the hungry, to welcome the stranger, to help the poor, to stand for justice for all people, to be peacemakers?
Joshua summoned his people to make a choice. What was the choice really about? I think it was this. Do we choose to live in the presence of God during this day or instead do we choose to live in what Thoreau called “quiet desperation.” The wording “choose this day whom you will serve” is not saying choose now how you are going to do things in the future. It is saying this day…each day, each twenty-four hour period, or this moment if the day is particularly overwhelming. Such choices will probably not help you when you are standing in the cereal aisle of the grocery store, but it will clam the quiet desperation of living in a society with unlimited choices. Choose this day whom you will serve. We are standing where Israel’s tribes stood thousands of years ago. We are being summoned, in the present moment of our history, to make a choice. John’s gospel reminds us that the road is not easy. Jesus’ teachings are difficult to follow. But he also reminds us that if we choose the road less traveled, it will make all the difference.