Sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, pastor of Pulaski Heights Baptist Church in Little Rock, A.R., on September 13 2009.
Psalm 19:1-14; Mark 8:27-38
How many of you have ever visited a cattle farm? Any kind of farm at all? When I was a boy we raised a few pigs and chickens, kept a cow or two. We couldn’t really call it a working farm, though, since my dad worked each day on the road as a salesman. We just had five acres, but our property was surrounded by small cattle farms, and this gave me an opportunity to observe how cows live and move and have their being.
Strange animals, cows are, yet at times quite interesting.
A number of years ago (perhaps it was when she got married), Barbara Brown Taylor moved out on a farm in north Georgia. This farm had a herd of white cattle, and being the observant person she is, Barbara began taking note of their bovine behavior.
She quickly discovered how predictable cows are. This particular herd had a hundred acres of land at their disposal, so they could go just about anywhere they wanted to go. Yet, they chose instead to limit their travels to certain familiar areas. And when they went from one part of the farm to another, they always traveled the same way, and they always did so together. They had worn out narrow paths across the farm acreage so they could get to their favorite watering holes, shady spots and clover patches.
When they decided to move from one location to another, they did so only as a group; hence the expression, herd mentality. They lined up single file and followed the narrow tracks that had already been made. When they moved from one place to another, they never ventured off the beaten path.
Cows are not necessarily dumb animals. You need to understand that. All you have to do is survey their tracking systems and you’ll figure it out. Most of the paths are simply the straightest line between Point A and Point B. But sometimes cows don’t choose the shortest route. They choose the easiest one. Cows will avoid making paths on hills, for example. Why climb a hill when you can go around it, even if it makes for a longer journey? Cows are not going to expend any more energy or calories than is absolutely necessary. Their paths will “avoid steep climbs and dicey descents, choosing long stretches under leafy tree lines wherever possible.”
Whatever their motivation for doing so, cows rarely if ever venture off the beaten path.
And that may not be such a bad thing.
If you know anything about farms, you are aware that when you get off the beaten path you share land with critters that may not be very friendly. “The last thing you want,” Taylor cautions, “when you are half a mile from home is to surprise a sunbathing rattlesnake or step into a groundhog burrow, which can swallow your leg up to the kneecap before you see it.” And there are yellow jackets. They make their home in the deep grass, she tell us, “and they value their privacy.”
So, it could easily be argued that it is a wise and prudent thing to take the path well-traveled. And if not wise, at least easier.
You know what? When it comes to behavior, we may have more in common with cows than we want to admit. After all, we have our well-worn paths too. We drive the same way to work every day, or to the mall or the store or the bank, which is usually the shortest route, or the one we hope will cause us to encounter the least amount of traffic. We prefer to sing only the familiar songs and hymns in worship, and let’s not even talk about the possibility of someone sitting in our pew spot. We settle into the same routines, and life becomes an exercise in getting from Point A to Point B with as little disruption as possible. We choose the familiar paths because to do otherwise requires more of our time and energy, and who has any of that to spare?
If we were to try something new, we would become less certain of ourselves and be less sure of where it is we are going. And we have all pretty much swallowed the misbegotten idea that reaching our destination, with as few detours as possible, is more important than the journey that gets us there.
Mark, in his gospel, is very careful about telling us where Jesus is going. So far, he and his disciples have traveled solely in familiar territory. The farthest they have gotten from Nazareth is the fishing village of Capernaum. Oh, they’ve made a couple of side trips across the Sea of Galilee to an area called Bethsaida, but none of these places is very far from their native Galilee. So far, though their experiences have been unique, to say the least, all the paths they have journeyed have been well-worn and quite familiar.
One day, they’re walking along and the familiar path takes a turn to the left. So, what do the disciples do? They start going that way, naturally, just as the cows would have done. Just like you and I no doubt would have done. It is the path that leads back to Galilee, to home, to the familiar. It isn’t a very wide path, but it is certain and it is sure.
“Where you going, boys?” Jesus asks them.
“We’re going home. See, that’s where the path takes us.”
Jesus says to them, “Let’s go this way instead.”
The disciples look at where Jesus has started walking. The grass is high and the way is hilly. Not many people have chosen to go in that direction for there is no distinguishable path, no real road to show them the way. It is obviously, to use Robert Frost’s terminology, the road less taken, and the disciples know instinctively it is a dangerous way to travel. There are rattlesnakes and groundhogs and yellow jackets. The way is uncertain and is fraught with all kinds of challenges. It is an unknown path to them. But they do know this… they know it is the way to Caesarea Philippi.
“But we’ve never been that way before,” they say to Jesus in protest.
“Neither have I,” he responds with a grin on his face. “Don’t you think it’s about time?”
“But that’s… that’s Roman territory.”
“Everywhere we go is Roman territory.”
“But in Caesarea Philippi they worship like Romans, they live like Romans. They have temples there, temples devoted to their gods, not to our God. We’re not comfortable with the idea of getting off the beaten path.”
“Well, let’s give it a try anyway. Shall we?”
And as they are on their way, watching very carefully and measuring precisely each step they take, looking out for the dangers that come with traveling unfamiliar territory, Jesus breaks the silence by asking them a question. “Who do the people say that I am?”
Now understand… they have diverted their itinerary from familiar territory and are headed into an area where they’ve never been before. Having put the familiar behind them, Jesus points his thumb back over his shoulder and says to his followers, “Okay, now that the people aren’t following us anymore we can talk openly and honestly amongst ourselves. The people back there… the ones who followed us all over Galilee… who were they saying I am?”
And the disciples respond by making a reference to those who were familiar and known to them in their faith journey. Some thought Jesus was John the Baptist come back from the dead. Others mentioned the name Elijah or one of the other prophets.
Do you see a pattern in their response? In the minds of the Galilean people, Jesus couldn’t be who he uniquely was, he had to fit within the confines of that which was familiar and comfortable and known to them. He couldn’t be himself, couldn’t be a whole, new expression of God’s purpose in the world. Why? Because they can’t bring themselves to venture off the beaten paths of their faith. Just as their feet want to travel on familiar paths, their minds and hearts prefer to think along familiar ways as well. So Jesus has to fit within their narrow mold, has to walk within the rigid confines of their religious understanding and be to them what they want him to be. They could not move themselves to travel a path they had never journeyed before.
If you can’t relate to that, you’re either far ahead of the rest of us, from a faith perspective, or you’re just not being honest with yourself. And being honest with yourself causes you to admit that you do not want, nor do you like, to venture off the beaten path of life and faith. You much prefer the certain, the sure, the well-known.
“But who do you say that I am?” That’s what Jesus really wants to know, isn’t it? When push comes to shove he’ll need the support of his disciples, so it’s good for him to know where they are when it comes to such commitment. “But who do you say that I am?” And for perhaps the very first time, the disciples wean themselves away from the herd mentality and look at Jesus with new and fresh eyes. “You are the Christ,” they say to him, “the Messiah.”
Not bad. Not bad at all. Talk about getting off the beaten path. Maybe doing so has given them a whole new perspective. But just as they are tempted to pat themselves on the back for an answer that obviously pleases their Master, he once again takes them off on an altogether new and foreign path. Jesus just keeps pushing the envelope, doesn’t he?
He obviously wants to know what they mean by Messiah. Messiah means to them a conqueror. Christ,to them, is one who takes over the controls of the religious machine. What the disciples say to Jesus, and what they have in mind, when it comes to his being the Coming One of Israel, is not what Jesus is thinking. Not at all. So, he starts talking to them of suffering and rejection and death and resurrection. Now, that’s a new path! And a narrow one indeed. Instinctively, and quickly, the disciples let him know that is one path down which they are definitely not willing to journey.
What path in life are you taking just now? You see, sometimes we do get off the beaten path, but not because we go looking for a new adventure. It is because we are pushed… pushed by some unexpected, unforeseen, and more often than not unwelcome experience that comes to us out of left field. Life has a way of doing that, you know, making us go places we do not want to go, experience things we would just as soon not know anything about.
That’s definitely what happened to Jesus’ disciples. They’ve been willing to follow Jesus wherever he has taken them, and they have indeed had some interesting, if not frightening, experiences along the way. But they hadn’t figured on this. Suffering, rejection, death, resurrection. That wasn’t in the contract, not even in the small print.
Don’t know about you, but I’ve just about decided that when it comes to following Jesus, there aren’t very many well-worn paths, if there are any at all. Life in Christ is an adventure of constantly having to maneuver one’s way into and out of unknown territory.
Oh, there are times when life is good and the path is easy. But then something comes along and pushes us off the beaten path. It may be an unexpected major surgery, or perhaps a stroke or heart attack. It may be a divorce or the loss of some other significant relationship in your life… the death of a loved one or friend, maybe. It could be that you lose your confidence, or your life’s savings. When we are pushed off our beaten path of life, our first reaction is fear, followed by paralysis. We simply don’t know what to do, where to turn, how to go.
It sounds odd, then, for Jesus to tell us this is the perfect time – the best time – to pick up our cross and follow him… when we’re hurting or sick, when we’re weak and vulnerable and not at the top of our game, when we’re no longer treading the familiar and comfortable but instead are finding ourselves walking in the high grass where we have to look out for the snakes and the groundhogs and the yellow jackets. In times like that, we don’t want a cross, we want a pillow.
And just when you think you can’t do it, you see that walking beside you on this new path of life is One who carries his cross in one arm and carries you in the other. It kinda makes you want to pick up your feet and move on, doesn’t it, even if it is on a path that no one has ever traveled before.
Help us to move on, O Lord, with you by our side. Whatever comes our way, whether the path is well-worn or is brand new, keep us on the journey. We pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.