Text: Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
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.
Robert Frost could have been inspired by the choice made by Abraham in our text for today when the poet published this, his most-famous poem “The Road Not Taken,” in 1916. Abraham took the less-traveled path Frost described. Says the writer of Hebrews, By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. The biblical record reports that Abraham and other heroes and heroines of the faith left the familiar to go in search of a home, a journey which took them to foreign lands. In fact, they understand themselves to be “strangers and foreigners on earth.” These pioneers of the faith literally lived in tents while they looked for “a city whose architect and builder is God.” Richard Rohr has called the way of our faith ancestors “a tentative life.”
These are hard days for progressives. It’s been a depressing spring and summer because so much of what we hold dear has been attacked, dismantled, outlawed, weakened, or ignored. Last week in Sunday school, some of you described yourselves as frustrated, sad, disappointed, even fearful about what has happened in our state in the last six months. Today, in the midst of our anger and grief, we read the story of the journey of Abraham and Sarah. Whether it is coincidence or something more sacred, let me suggest that this tale is exactly what we need to hear in these days. For it reminds us that like Abraham and Sarah, Abel, Noah, Enoch, and the rest of the faithful, we, too, are strangers and foreigners on earth because we’ve chosen a different way. The distinction, however, is that they knew it. But we often forget who we are. We are people of faith. And in the words of Stanley Hauerwas, we are “resident aliens” who follow an “odd God,” one whose concern for the welfare of the young and the old, the sick and the weak is paramount. Given our culture’s current focus on power and wealth, if we’re not strangers and foreigners on earth – if we’re not social misfits in some clearly discernible ways – we probably aren’t people of faith.
The term used by the writer of Hebrews for “faith” sometimes means trust or belief and at other times refers to the quality of loyalty. I like the way the New International Version describes it in the first verse: Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. It is clear that faith cannot be severed from hope. Having faith is knowing in our core that what we are hoping for is really going to happen someday. Maybe not in our day, but someday. In Hebrews 11, our ancestors in the faith have their stories recounted in the roll call because their lives were grounded in this kind of hope-filled faith. Their orientation was eschatological, which is a theological way of saying they were looking to the future and what was yet to come. As New Testament scholar Fred Craddock suggests, “in this narrative, faith is forward-looking, oriented toward the future, trusting that God will keep promises to those who believe. In other words, faith and hope are one, and life is a pilgrimage.” God here is characterized as “one who makes promises and keeps them, regardless of the time that passes and the circumstances, which seem hopeless.”
In our day, the temptation is to view characters like Abraham and Sarah and the others in one of two ways: either they are larger-than-life figures whose standard we can never meet, or the biblical writers must have exaggerated their goodness and faithfulness. I think neither view is helpful. However metaphorical portions of their stories may be, what’s important to know is that they were ordinary people who strived to do an extraordinary thing: to follow God knowing that this journey would take them to hard places, unexpected places, less-traveled places. They lived with their eyes on the prize, as the African-American spiritual says. They held on when their world encouraged them to do otherwise. But it is important to note this: they didn’t have to.
Remember verse 15: If they had been thinking of the land they had left behind, they would have had an opportunity to return. It’s fair to assume that at any point Abraham and Sarah could have abandoned their pilgrimage to a new place and settled into the values, goals, and relationships of the land in which they lived as strangers. This option was always available to them. When you live in Rome, you can easily do as the Romans do. In fact, one is encouraged to do so. For many reasons, the easiest thing is to go with the cultural flow.
In the year 2000 after my graduation from seminary, several of us here at Pullen joined an Alliance of Baptists Jewish-Christian study trip to Israel. Like most tourists, we literally ran where Jesus walked, seeing more sights we’d read or heard about than I can now recall. But for me, one of the most compelling experiences of the trip was attending the Shabbat, or Sabbath service with Orthodox Jews. First we were delivered in pairs to various homes of Jewish families. Then we walked with our hosts to the service. On our way, I watched while individuals and families appeared from all over the neighborhood to walk to the synagogue. The stores and businesses were closed. All around us, the world had stopped because it was the Sabbath. What struck me was the amount of social reinforcement there was in these neighborhoods for “doing the right thing” from an Orthodox Jewish perspective. Quitting whatever you’re doing in the middle of Friday afternoon so you can be ready with all your work done when the sun sets was the norm. To do otherwise would have been counter-cultural.
But we don’t live in an Orthodox neighborhood with all its communal support. For us, getting up on a Sunday morning to come to church goes against culture even in the South. For all of our Bible-belt Christianity, there are increasing numbers of people who never attend church. To do so, you have to go against a consumer culture that says you should sleep in, make or buy your designer coffee, read the paper, go for a walk, declare a “family day,” or engage in some other leisurely Sunday morning activity. To be here sitting in a pew listening to me this morning is increasingly a road less-traveled activity for middle class, educated Americans.
Seen from a distance, choosing to leave the comfort of one’s home to gather here on Sunday mornings and at other times is actually a rather odd thing to do in and of itself. It is even odder to do it because we are lured here by a mysterious Holy One who promotes community rather than individualism, generosity rather than self-indulgence, and love rather than disdain for those on the margins of society. But this is what Abraham and Sarah and their clan did. They chose a different path and set out for an unknown destination based on a promise from an odd God that they would not journey alone. Says Craddock, this “extraordinary consequence flowed from a faith that trusted God as a keeper of promises.” Says the psalmist, Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me.
So with God as their companion, they looked to the future. In contrast to a tent home and a life that is temporary and vulnerable, Abraham and Sarah anticipated a permanent city with a solid foundation. Their vision of this city of the future empowered them to live as strangers and foreigners. Undoubtedly, they were viewed as peculiar by their neighbors. It wasn’t easy, but it was OK because they knew who they were and they possessed a powerful vision of what was to come. Likewise, the faithful today choose the less-traveled path empowered by a compelling vision, one that affirms that the future is not finished yet. In the words of Walter Brueggemann, “God has a powerful intention and resolve to bring us to a wholeness not yet in hand.”
The writer of Hebrews seems to believe that the “city” Abraham and Sarah were seeking was a heavenly one. But I think Jesus contradicts this in that most-memorized passage we know as the Lord’s Prayer: Thy kingdom come, thy will be done ON EARTH as it is in heaven. Following this uncommon way accompanied by an odd God wasn’t just about a reward in the sky by and by – not according to Jesus. It was about bringing a new way, a common-wealth to this planet as well. And he reminded us that the road to this place isn’t an interstate. It isn’t a route that shows up on Mapquest. In fact, Jesus honestly admits that his way goes against just about everything we have heard, everything that comes naturally, rationally. “You have heard it said…but I say to you,” is how he put it when he charged us to love our enemies. People who walk down the narrow way will be accused by everyone else of being “fanatical,” irrational in the extreme, says Hauerwas, because they have given over their individual claims of reasonableness and independence in their attempts to be obedient to a God who is kind even to the ungrateful and the selfish. Thus, Christian ethics and a faithful way of living arise out of the formation of a peculiar community.
So the road to God’s realm on earth isn’t the one most often chosen by travelers. And if you try it, there are many intersections where one can get off at any point along the way. And it has one more important characteristic: it’s long and bumpy and travel can be painfully slow. That is, the unfolding of the Commonwealth of God isn’t fast, which is indeed a counter-cultural reality today. There aren’t any speed limits on the road-less-traveled because they aren’t needed. This means one of the primary traits required for traveling this path is patience.
In recent days, the world’s attention has been focused on terrorist threats and baseball suspensions and hamburger made from stem cells. But thankfully, we’ve also given attention to the health and well-being of Nelson Mandela. If ever there was a person who knows something about long roads, slow progress, and the necessity of patience, it is former South African President Mandela. In fact, a movie about his life is called “The Long Walk to Freedom.” Now 95 years old, he became involved in anti-colonial politics even before the institution of apartheid began in 1948. Working as a lawyer, he was repeatedly arrested for seditious activities but was found not guilty. Then in 1962 he was arrested, convicted of sabotage and conspiracy to overthrow the government, and sentenced to life imprisonment. Mandela served 27 years in prison until an international campaign lobbied for his release, which was granted in 1990. As president of the African National Congress, he led negotiations with President F.W. de Klerk to abolish apartheid and establish multiracial elections in 1994, in which Mandela led the ANC to victory. He was elected President and formed a Government of National Unity in an attempt to defuse ethnic tensions. As President, he established a new constitution; initiated the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate past human rights abuses; and introduced measures to encourage land reform, combat poverty, and expand healthcare services. Only in the peculiar context of a journey of real faith could someone imprisoned for 27 years endure to become president and reform his homeland’s national life.
The Bible is fundamentally a story of a people’s journey with God. Our modern-day tendency is to see our work for a differently-ordered world as one that is social or political even if we are motivated by our faith to participate in its unfolding. So we focus on what we are doing or should be doing. But Abraham and Sarah had another perspective. What they saw in the distance was a city whose architect and builder was God rather than themselves. They were active participants, to be sure. But they went where God led them.
Can we do the same? That is, can our lives begin to take on a form that allows us to see the issues of the day not as isolated situations that require us to support or oppose them, but as part of a continuing story of God with God’s people? If we can, says Hauerwas, the decisions we make become events within a larger journey as we witness the courage of ordinary people who find their lives caught up in the purposes of God. For the moment life is formed on the presumption that we are not participants in God’s continuing history of creation and redemption, we are acting on unbelief and not faith.
Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.
If we cannot hold onto a vision, if we cannot take the long view, then our faith is dead in the water these days. But if we can be certain of the reality of a coming world we can’t yet see, then we can move forward. Sometimes we run; sometimes we slow to a walk; in times like these we may feel that trudging or even crawling is all we can manage. But faith gives us the stamina we need to be patient, to keep going, to keep working, to support each other and the new ones who join us along the way.
For sure, we have to be humble and discerning in order to be certain our vision is aligned with God’s. That’s our life-long task. But when what we want for the world is truly what God wants, we can bear the uncertainty of not knowing exactly where we are going. We can tolerate a tentative life. We can do it because we see the city in the distance and we sense that its architect is close by. We can bear being a peculiar people who follow an odd God. Like Robert Frost, we can even be glad we chose the less-traveled road. For in our lifetime or beyond, this choice will make all the difference.