“The Road Taken”

This was the message that I gave for the 6th Sunday after Pentecost, 10 July 1994, at Grace UMC (St. Cloud, MN). The Scriptures that I used for this message were Psalm 23 and John 14: 5 – 7.

I will use this title and the passage from the Robert Frost poem from which it comes in later sermons, sermons which mark the end of my time at that particular location. I do not remember if that is part of the reason that I used the poem in this message; I would again stand in the pulpit two weeks later and let every one know that I was leaving St. Cloud to return to Kansas.

The return to Kansas in 1994 did not go as I had hoped but it did mark the beginning of my lay speaking and ministerial career.

I want to take you on a little journey through the Ozarks. You start in the southeast corner of Kansas in the town of Oswego and head south on US 59. You will pass through several small towns until you are south of Miami, Oklahoma. There you turn east on US 60. Follow 60 until you get to Sikeston, Missouri, where it intersects US 61. Turn right on 61 and go one block. You now turn left again onto US 62. You then take 62 west down into Arkansas to Imboden where you come into US 63. Follow 63 south to Memphis where you pick up US 64. Take 64 west back through Arkansas through Little Rock to Conway. In Conway, go north on US 65 to Springfield, Missouri. This, by the way, will take you by Missouri 76 which is the cutoff to Branson. Try to time your drive so as to avoid most of the congestion (that would be about 2 in the morning). When you get to Springfield, take Interstate 44 to St. Louis. I-44 is the old US 66. Once you get to St. Louis, just a little south of Busch Stadium and the Arch, you intersect US 67. Take 67 south past the eastern edge of the Ozarks and the western portion of the Missouri bootheel until you get to Little Rock where you will get on Interstate 40, which is also US 70. Don’t worry about the skip in numbers. US 68 is somewhere in Ohio and a little too far away for this trip. Take I-40 towards Oklahoma. Now you have two options; you can stop at Fort Smith and go north on US 71 to Joplin or you can continue on until you get to US 69. For this trip the second option is the one you want. Once you get to the US 69 exit, go north on 69 to Columbus, Kansas.

Now I know that you probably haven’t got the slightest idea where you are. But, when you get to the intersection of US 69 and Kansas 96, assuming the Kansas Department of Transportation is through for the season (yes, Kansas has the same seasons as Minnesota – winter and construction), turn left and follow K-96 for about twenty minutes. If you do that, you will be right back where you started in Oswego, Kansas. I might also add that if you follow 96 for about another forty miles or so, you will be in Independence, Kansas, where Sandra lives. Stop by and say hi if you have the chance.

Now, it is one thing to get lost in the Ozarks. At least you know where you are and it is easy to get back to “civilization”. But what happens if you don’t have a map or directions to follow.

We are fast approaching the next century. The recent issue of U.S. News and World Report(July 11, 1994) notes that tomorrow, July 11th, there will be 2000 days until January 1, 2000. In the same report, it was reported that only 26% of Americans feel that the world will be in better shape when the next century comes around. Forty-two percent (42%) feel that the world will be worse. The road we are traveling on is coming to a fork. We must decide today which path to take.

We must also realize that we cannot turn to the government to provide the direction we should take. What Abraham Lincoln said some one hundred and thirty years ago is still true today. Governments are of, by, and from the people. If the people are lost and confused, the government will be likewise. If people are to have a firm sense of direction for the coming year, that direction must come from us, both as individuals and as the church, and no one else.

The United Methodist Church began, in part, because of the direction society was taking. Though the upper class may have benefited from the Industrial Revolution, the lower class were often forgotten. It was only the members of the upper class that were immune to the problems of long hours working in intolerable conditions and with limited health care that the working class and poor had to contend with every day. To cope with the stress that such conditions and the attitudes of society produced, many of the working class and poor turned to drugs and alcohol. I do not for sure but I would not be surprised if the statistics on domestic violence then are similar to the statistics today.

Wesley contended and argued that society could be changed and that it was the church that could make that change. It was through Wesley that the first Sunday school was started; not as we know it, but as a way of educating the populace (keep in mind that many children worked six days a week in the factories and Sunday was the only day when they could go to school). It was also Wesley and his followers who took the lead in dealing with the alcoholism and substance abuse so prevalent in English society at that time. Historians today agree that it was primarily because of the work by Wesley and his followers that England did not undergo the violent revolution that France did at the same time.

John Wesley understood the need for the church to present a message the people understood but a church blind to the needs of its members or its community cannot do its work. You cannot preach of the power of the Saving Grace of Jesus Christ when people are hungry, homeless, or suppressed by an indifferent society. John Wesley also understood that an individual, having accepted Jesus Christ as his Savior, had the responsibility to show that he had done so. This meant helping the community.

I had the opportunity two weeks ago to hear Dr. Rose Sims preach at Red Rock Camp. As John told you last week, she was asked to take over a church in south Florida that had 7 members, all over 70 years of age. It was also in a part of Florida that some had described as part of the Third World. For all practical purposes, the church was closed and she was there to perform the funeral. Yet, today that church has over 350 members and is perhaps the central strength of a small town. If you get a chance, you should read the book she wrote describing the rebuilding of churches in Missouri and Florida. The best description of her work with the Florida church was written by a reporter, George Lane, of the Tampa Tribune. He wrote

“Once the rural church was the strength of America, and the Methodist Church in Trilby and hundreds of other towns like this are fertile soil for the church’s rebirth in Florida., America, and maybe the world. What is happening at the Trilby Methodist Church offers new hope. When the world is at its worst, that is when the church must be at its best.” (New Life For Dying Churches, Dr. Rose Sims)

If you ask Dr. Sims how all of that was accomplished she will tell you it was because the work done at Trilby was done for Jesus. The secret of the rebirth of the Trilby Church was that the preaching of the Gospel was accompanied by work in the community.

We are being asked to do God’s work. The call to do God’s work is a very frightening thing. It is a call most people would probably not want to receive. And I am not talking about people just in our time. Consider the following statements.

“But, Lord, I have never been a man of ready speech, never in my life, not even now that you have spoken to me; I am slow and hesitant.” (Exodus 4:10)

That was Moses’ response when God called him to go the Pharaoh and begin the journey to the promised land. And then there was

‘Ah! Lord God,’ I answered, ‘I am not skilled in speaking; I am too young.’ (Jeremiah 1: 6)

That was Jeremiah’s response to being called by God to be a prophet.

Remember Jonah?. Jonah didn’t simply protest the call of God. He tried to put as much distance as he could between himself and God.

But to escape from the Lord Jonah set out for Tarshish. He went down to Joppa, where he found a ship bound for Tarshish. He paid the fare and went on board to travel with it to Tarshish out of the reach of the Lord. ( Jonah 1: 3)

Even Peter, the disciple on whom Jesus wanted to build his church, denied his Lord at the most crucial time.

Yet, there has never been a case where God called on someone to do his work and then left that person alone. He always provides the skills and the means to accomplish the task. To Moses, God said

The Lord said to him, ‘Who is it that gives man speech” Who makes him dumb or deaf” Who makes him keen-sighted or blind? Is it no I, the Lord?’ Go now; I shall help you to speak and show you what to say.’ (Exodus 4: 11 – 13)

To Jeremiah’s cry that he was unprepared, God replied

But the Lord said, ‘Do not plead that you are too young; for you are to go to whatever people I send you, and say whatever I tell you to say.’ (Jeremiah 1: 7)

In writing Psalm 23, David showed that God would provide the comfort, support, strength, and security one needed to do unpleasant tasks. Israel in the days of David was not a hospitable place. The valleys were not well lighted avenues but deep and dark inlets in the hills. The darkness of the valleys offered robbers excellent places in which to hide. One did not go into such valleys unless there was a very good reason. When Jesus spoke of shepherds seeking lost sheep, people understood the dangers involved and the extra effort it took needed for such searches.

God said the same to Jeremiah, “Fear none of them, for I shall be with you to keep you safe.” (Jeremiah 1: 8) If we accept the Lord in our lives, then we have nothing to fear from whatever road we travel.

So it is for us. We are like the disciplines at the Last Supper, wondering what will happen next. Turn to John 14. Jesus has just laid out the betrayal by Judas and the indicated that Peter would deny Him. But he also said

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you , I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”(John 14: 1 – 8)

When I began working on this talk, I thought of the poem “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost. It is the last stanza of the poem which I turn to now.

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 Road Not Taken”, Robert Frost)

We are at a junction in our lives. Two roads stand before us. One looks like a pretty good road and it is the one that everyone else seems to take. The other road seems to be about the same though not many people take it. It is hard to tell which one we should take. But the decision is very simple. One road has a sign, an empty cross, which say to each one of us “Follow me”. And that is the road taken.

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