Jesus Down the Road Less Traveled
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon
The text this morning
that I want to reflect with you on is actually a continuation of the
text from last Sunday from Matthew 16. I'll read the text for this
morning in just a bit, but first I'd like to recap from last week.
In that text, you may recall, Jesus asks the Disciples "Who you say that
I am?". And Peter, of course, responds "You are the Christ, the son of
the living God". The 'great confession' we call it, that is the central
affirmation of Christian faith. And as I said last week, we can disagree
on just about everything else, so long as we affirm that central
affirmation. Even if we have different understandings of precisely what
it means, still, that's what defines who we are as Christians.
Billy Graham once was criticized for working with the National Council
of Churches by some of his supporters, but he replied that he would
fellowship with anyone who says Jesus is Lord. And indeed, that is good
Well, Jesus responds
then, to Peter's confession, saying "Blessed are you Simon", which is an
ancient Jewish colloquialism for "Right on, baby!". You get an A+ You're
solid as a rock. This, of course, is then the foundation of the church.
You can imagine Peter must have been pretty pleased with himself. James,
did you hear what Jesus just said? Huh? John, are you listening? Well,
then Jesus goes on to say 'now, let me tell you what that means'. And
that's the text we'll come to in just a moment.
And of course, that is when the trouble begins. It always does. As soon
as move from that confession of faith to putting faith into action,
someone is going to disagree with your particular interpretation.
Take, for example, the preacher who persuaded 19 of his followers to
strip buck-naked and can cram into one vehicle and to drive wildly down
the freeway. I don't know why, you know, preachers sometimes do strange
things :) But whatever the case may be, some police officer pulled him
over. What, just 19 people driving naked down the freeway, what's wrong
with that? He cited the preacher for failure to carry proper
identification :) What do you show?
And, cited him for reckless driving. Should have cited him for reckless
theology. But is that any less crazy than Harold Camping, the radio
preacher, 89 years old, who decided -- based on his meticulous reading
of scripture -- that the rapture was going to come on May 21st. Followed
by the end of the world in October, just in time for our centennial
celebration. You go to all that work, and it's all null and void :)
Well, if you've been following the story in the news, you may know that
Mr. Camping, a few weeks or so after making that prediction, after the
non-event, the non-rapture, was hospitalized, admitted into a nursing
facility for failing health. And I wish personally the best for him, but
I also wish that there were a comparable facility for failing biblical
And then there are the folks who put together an organization called "No
More Deaths". And they seem to take Jesus literally when he said "I was
thirsty, and you didn't give me anything to drink". Because they have
made it their mission to provide drinking water along the trails in the
desert of Arizona where would-be immigrants, trying to find their way
into this country, literally have died of thirst. I only know about the
organization because two of our members went with them on Spring break
this last year -- Madeleine Bailey and Paulina Bryant. What are you
thinking?! Where do you suppose these kids get these ideas? I don't
know. . .
Alabama, proud of the
toughest anti-immigration law in the country, would make that kind of
assistance of undocumented persons illegal. Only some of the churches,
including some of the most fundamentalist, conservative churches of
Alabama are protesting this new law of their government, saying who are
you to tell us who we can or cannot feed? This is part of the gospel.
Good for them.
Yesterday, we had a wedding. Callie and Carmen, came to us I think about
a couple years ago, after being told in at least two different churches
that they were not welcome there. One of the churches said 'I think
you'd feel more at home at First Christian Church downtown' :)
When we became open & affirming, they said they wanted to stand in front
of their family and friends in the presence of God to make their vows of
lifetime love and commitment. Who are we to say 'no'? Now, does that
qualify as a marriage? The Oregon Constitution says no. And we had a
protester who wanted to say 'no'. Turns out they didn't, actually. It
was a cousin of theirs, a cousin who drove down from Seattle so that she
could stand out across the street from us with a sign that said "Unholy
Matrimony". Stood out there for the whole service.
I told Callie and Carmen before the service, and their two daughters
(that were quite distressed about all this), I said, "Well, look at
that, isn't that wonderful, your cousin has just affirmed that this is a
matrimony. Not even the State of Oregon will give you that" :)
So, Christian people may disagree, and some of us may disagree on what
to call that ceremony, but let me tell you: I've done a lot of weddings,
about 250. I have experienced no wedding any more beautiful and
wonderful and joyous than that one. And Callie and Carmen have just as
much love and commitment as any couple. Even though I tried to get them
to come to church this morning, they said "Well, we have these plane
tickets to Maui" :). And, from getting to know them, I can also tell you
they have more commitment to God, more faith in Jesus Christ, than
probably many if not most of the couples I've married.
Prior to that wedding, of course, we had the parade. 40 of us were out
there in that parade, proclaiming our message of a place where all are
welcome under this roof. And in this community, sometimes known for its
less-than-friendly atmosphere to Christians, from the several thousand
who were gathered along the street, we experienced almost nothing but
praise, and applause, and appreciation. It was very affirming and lots
I say 'almost', because
we had one, there's always one, who when we were announcing that we're
celebrating 100 years under this roof, someone yelled out: "And 2,000
years of oppression". Well, there's always one.
My point is simply this: there will always be those who are hostile to
all kinds of religious belief. And those hostile to our particular
witness of Christian faith. And those who simply do not agree with us,
and can disagree quite loudly.
Putting faith into practice, you see, sometimes carries risk. Not
everyone likes the message we proclaim. So with that in mind, listen
then to this text, after Peter makes that great confession:
This is a challenging
text. It's not so much that it's hard to understand, it's more that it's
hard to apply. I'm not sure I want to do what Jesus says.
Now, take note of how quickly Peter has gone from being the hero, with
all the right words, to the villain, who would betray everything that
Jesus stood for. The rock on which the church would be built all of a
sudden becomes the stumbling block. Peter goes from the head of the
class to the class dunce. From the mountaintop where he can see the
promised land, to the valley of the shadow of death. All in the blink of
an eye. How did he fall so quickly from the good graces of Jesus? He
broke the cardinal rule of heights -- he looked down. He looked down
when he should have been looking up. You set your mind on human things,
Pete, not on divine things. And it can happen that quick, it really can.
One moment, you're the star quarterback for the number four-ranked team
in the nation, and the next moment you're fighting to stay out of jail
under threat of a felony assault. I'm not gloating :) I'm just thankful,
for once, it wasn't the star player for the Duck's that's in trouble :)
The phone call came
late at night, it was a voice I had not heard since high school.
"Danny?", the voice said, "this is Jimmy". Keep in mind, no one calls me
'Danny' who doesn't live to regret it from certain threats that they
subsequently receive :) So I knew it was a voice from a long-ago. And I
recognized his voice as one my best friends in middle school. But he
kind of went a different direction, experimenting with drugs. And now he
was in a drug rehabilitation program here in Eugene, and wanted me to
come and visit. I said sure, we talked for an hour.
He told me about all kinds of things that had happened to him, things he
was not proud of. Even killed a man in a bar fight in Mexico. Lost his
job, lost his wife, lost his son, made and lost a fortune. In and out of
rehabilitation three times. His family had bailed him out now for the
fourth and he knew final time. He wanted to get back to church, he
wanted to return to that faith and practice in which we were both
raised, in the same congregation. He wanted his parents to be proud of
He believed in Jesus, he knew God could work a miracle in his life. And
if he didn't make it this time, he said, his next visit to church would
be his funeral. We prayed together. I have him a big hug. I promised I'd
return, and I did -- we talked about his recovery plan, and all of the
steps. He had it all laid out. I left him with a card, my phone number,
my home phone number, call me Jimmy if you need anything.
A few months later, was the 20th reunion of the graduation class from my
high school. I went, and looked for Jimmy. Didn't see him. Finally, I
overheard someone talking about him. It was his peer counselor in
Narcotics Anonymous, who said Jimmy lasted two days. Two days. And he
was back into that habit.
And I remembered all those conversations we had. Jimmy knew what he
needed to do. He knew all the right things to say, he just couldn't do
it. He fell that quickly. Was it some character flaw? Was it some defect
in his DNA? Was it a predisposition to addiction? Was it some spiritual
weakness? Probably some of all of the above.
Whenever I think about
Jimmy, or I hear a similar story about someone else, I think about what
Paul wrote to the Romans: "I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.
For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I
do. I find it to be a law that when I want to do good, evil lies close
So what is this terrible weakness that causes us to do that which we
know is not right? You are setting you mind on human things, says Jesus,
not on the divine. Simply a failure to put God an the center of our
lives, to base all of our values, actions, and beliefs on something less
than the Creator of life revealed to us through Jesus Christ, who
somewhat paradoxically then invites us in choosing this God of life to
take up the cross and follow him to Jerusalem, where he is killed.
Dietrich Bonheoffer summed up this call in its harshest terms in his
classic book "The Cost of Discipleship", not knowing, of course, that
some 7-8 years later he himself would be executed by Adolf Hitler. But
he wrote: "When Christ calls someone, he bids them come and die".
I don't know about you, but I enjoy his life, I have no intention of
giving it up anytime soon. And I honestly do not think that Jesus or
Bonheoffer meant that literally, even though some like Bonheoffer,
Jesus, and Martin Luther King have had to pay that ultimate price.
I think instead of the many figurative ways in which we die when we put
God at the center of our lives. We die to self-centeredness, or maybe
self-interest. To consumerism and a life of consumption. We die to
racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia. We die to nationalism, to
addiction, to hatred, to fear of all kinds of things. Or in the more
traditional language of the meaning of baptism, we are buried with
Christ to our old way of life in sin, and raised to a new way of life in
God. Only sometimes it's just not that easy.
Too often we make this way of figuratively dying as a life of sacrifice
-- giving up all sorts of pleasures and otherwise good things we might
enjoy. "Take up the cross" becomes a sacrifice of all of your
self-interests. It's no wonder we don't want to do it.
So I think in terms of the Christian life not so much in terms of
sacrifice and burden, but rather in terms of choice. Not of what I have
lost, but in what I have gained. Not of the cross as a burden, but as an
That great poem of
Robert Frost, I think, says it so well in the last stanza of The Road
Less Traveled when he writes: "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".
What have I gained on this road less traveled by, following Jesus? The
opportunity to be a part of a wonderful community like this, of the body
of Christ, and to participate in days like yesterday -- celebrating the
raising of our roof in a parade:
And celebrating the
affirmation of God's love and blessing upon that couple in the wedding.
The pleasure and privilege of raising our two children in this
community, in this congregation, in a place where they have always known
they are loved and valued for who they are and now they, in their own
way, are giving back.
To have such a supportive community as this in a time of crisis, and to
feel that support expressed in so many ways. To join together with so
many different people of faith, and of different faiths, in ways that
are affirming, not condemning, loving, not judging, working for God's
justice and peace.
And to witness even the smallest of miracles as we did last Sunday in
our first service, when one of our mentally-ill regulars, who can often
be (truthfully, always is) disruptive in some little way (sometimes big
ways), talking often non-sense, in our joys, clear as a bell, coherent
as could be, he shared his joy of four years of being clean and sober
instead of out stealing our cars like he used to do to support his drug
habit. What a wondrous thing to hear God's people affirm him with the
The road less traveled, where many are not willing to go is the one
Jesus invites us to take, keeping our minds and hearts not on the
negative, but on the positive. Not on the burden and sacrifice, but on
God's will and Christ's love.
Such is the way that transforms lives, transforms Christianity, and
transforms the world.
May it be.
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