Monday, April 17, 2017

Learning to Let Go

Here is my sermon from Easter Sunday. The scripture was John 20:1-18:

Benjamin Franklin once said that there are two certainties in this life: death and taxes.  One of the oldest translated pieces of writing is about the collection of taxes, and people have been dying for as long as there have been people. But today, on this day, we get out of both, or at least a little bit for a little while, because we get to delay filing our taxes until Tuesday because April 15th fell on the weekend, and we celebrate the fact that when Mary went to the tomb on that first Easter that Jesus wasn’t there, that he had been raised from the dead. Now this is not to deny either taxes or death, because they are still a reality for us. Now you may think you can cheat on our taxes or cheat death, but we have to remember that of the two, only one of them can truly be overcome. And totally off the topic, I would be remiss in noting that yesterday the 15th was the 70th anniversary of Jackie Robinson playing his first game in the major leagues, and while he was not the first African-American to play professional baseball, that honor goes to Moses Fleetwood walker, he was the first in the modern era and he was also the first to stay playing and set the stage for the integration, not just of sports, but also of society as his event happened more than a year before President Truman desegregated the military and 7 years before the supreme court held that segregated schools were unconstitutional. A truly momentous occasion in our society, but unrelated to today, or at least only tangentially related to today.

Now, if Shakespeare were to have written a play about Easter, he would have used the version of the story we find in the gospel of John, and it would have been a comedy as there are lots of characters running around, coming in and out of the scene, there is confusion and missing bodies and mistaken identities and then doesn’t end with a resolution, but instead leads on to what will happen next.  And, just another piece of trivia, does anyone know the only Shakespearean play to mention Easter? Romeo and Juliet. Now in the synoptic gospels, that is Matthew, Mark and Luke, Mary and some other women show up at the tomb on that Sunday morning because they want to prepare Jesus’ body for burial as there wasn’t time to do so before putting his body in the tomb and the beginning of the sabbath when no work could be done. But, in John Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus prepare the body, in fact it seems they over prepare it as John says they show up with 100 pounds of spices, and so instead of coming to prepare the body, it appears as if Mary comes to the grave, just by herself in this version, simply to be there in order to grieve. Her weeping is mentioned four times later in the passage. This too is unique to John, as in the other versions while there is fear and astonishment and confusion, only John mentions her grief over Jesus death.

But when Mary gets to the tomb, she sees the stone has been rolled away from the tomb, and she immediately runs to tell Peter and the beloved disciple, who is not named, but believed to be John, that Jesus’ body has been taken from the tomb and she doesn’t know where it is now. How she knows this is not clear as we are not told that she looked in the tomb, only that the stone had been moved. And then we are told this strange tale of Peter and the beloved disciple racing each other, with Peter getting their second. Apparently, it was important to note that the beloved disciple was faster and won this race with Peter, but Peter is the first to go into the tomb after the beloved disciple has looked in and all they see is that the burial clothes have been nicely folded up and left in the tomb, but the body is not there. Now the mention of the burial clothes is important for understanding this event because if the body was just being taken, why would they unwrap it? It also harkens back to the story of Lazarus, when Jesus calls Lazarus out of the tomb, he comes out still wrapped in the burial clothes and Jesus has to tell the others to remove them, but that’s not what has happened, which is the first indication to us, and the disciples that something unique has taken place, that this is more than just the disappearance of a body. And as result of what he sees, we are told that the beloved disciple “saw and believed” although what he believed is not clear because we then told immediately “they did not understand the scripture that Jesus must be raised from the dead.” And probably for the first time in scripture, Peter is seemingly left speechless. Perhaps all they believed at this point was that Mary had told them the truth, but then like typical men, they don’t share any information, they don’t discuss their feelings, instead they simply go back home, and we have a scene change and return to Mary, who is there crying outside the tomb.

This time, Mary herself looks inside the tomb, she doesn’t see the clothes laying there, but instead she sees two angels who ask her why she is crying, and she tells them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” Nothing is said that she believes in this moment, and nothing unusual is made by Mary that she is seeing two angels sitting in the tomb who had not just been there a moment before. But then she turns and sees Jesus, although she doesn’t know it’s him, and he comments on her tears, and thinking he’s the gardener asks him where Jesus’ body is and that if he will tell her, she will take it so that it can be properly buried. That is, Mary is not coming seeking resurrection. She is not coming to the graveyard seeking life. She is coming simply to grieve and be close to Jesus’ body, knowing that he’s not there, but yet having some assurance and peace in at least being close to his body, and there is something comforting about that, about having a place to mourn. A place to go where we can at least feel some closeness to the person we lost. That’s the whole reason for cemeteries. It’s the reason why the department of defense continues to look for soldiers lost in action, spending an average of $1 million per soldier they return back to their families, because when there is not that place to go, that sense of closure it can leave an enormous hole in people’s lives, and so Mary is seeking to close that hole and know where the body is. She is not seeking someone alive, she is seeking someone who is dead, which makes what happens next so surprising and amazing, and the reason we are here 2000 years latter to hear it again.

Jesus calls Mary by name, and by doing so she recognizes him and calls out to him and Jesus then tells her “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the father.” Like most of you, I couldn’t say how many times I have heard this passage, and in my mind, I always picture Mary holding onto Jesus’ feet. But that is not what happens here. Matthew says she and the other women there grab ahold of Jesus’ feet and worship him, but that is not John’s account. Although we like to combine the Easter stories together, just like we do with other stories, they are different accounts and need to be kept separate, and in John’s gospel that event doesn’t happen, or at least it’s not reported. I actually had to go back and reread the whole things several times just to make sure I wasn’t missing it, But it’s not there. Now is it possible that Mary grabs Jesus and it’s not reported? Of course. It’s also possible that Mary simply thought about grabbing a hold of him, and Jesus is responding to this inclination. But in hearing the story this year, I think it might be something entirely different and something deeper and more meaningful.

I’m sure that most of us have seen a picture like this at some point, and normally it has some cutesy words on it, something like “hang in there baby.” And it’s a good statement, sort of when the going gets tough, the tough get going, or don’t give up, things like that. But a few weeks ago as I was driving down the street thinking about this message, and wasn’t sure what I wanted to say, it hit me that sometimes you have to let go. That clinging onto something is not only bad policy, but can in fact get you the opposite response that you are looking for. Sometimes the best response is exactly what Jesus says to Mary “don’t hold on.” Mary did not come looking for resurrection or new life, she came looking for what she expected, which was to find the body of Jesus whom she thought was dead. And as long as that was the expectation that she held onto, then the reality of resurrection could never be truly present for her, just as it wasn’t to the disciples. They “believed” but did not understand. Mary saw the angels, she saw Jesus, but did not recognize them because she was holding onto a past perception, an idea of how things were and were going to continue being. Jesus is dead, so where is the body? In order to experience the resurrection Mary had to let go of the idea that Jesus was still dead. She could not cling to the body she so desperately sought.  Instead, she had to let go in order to gain the Jesus she needed. There are times in which to get what we need we have to learn to let go of what we have.

After I had received my call to the ministry, I was working at a job that I loved with a boss I couldn’t stand. One Monday morning as I was driving into work I was preparing to have another argument with my boss, because that’s about all we did, and I started praying and I said something like “ok God, if I’m supposed to be doing something different here, then you’re going to have to tell me what it is, because I have no idea what I’m doing anymore.” When I got to work, we started arguing and I said to my boss, “I don’t know what you want from me, do you want me to resign?” She said she did, and so I walked out the door. That’s the only time in my life I have ever done that. It turned out that I got a job interview that afternoon for a position that would bring me down to Albuquerque, which would allow me to complete my degree at UNM so I could go to seminar, my brother decided to move back to Albuquerque from North Carolina and we then lived together, which made the move affordable, and he then introduced me to Linda, who would become my wife. So within 6 months of that prayer of letting go, I had a new job, lived in a new city and had met my future wife. What would have happened if I hadn’t prayed that prayer? I don’t know, but I know that in looking back at it, even just a few months later, that it had changed my life. A new path was set before me, a new life was set before me, because I had let go of the past life and the old path. I had to let go of the idea that I was the master of my own destiny.  What are you holding on to that’s keeping you back? What are you holding onto that’s not allowing you to move forward? What are you holding onto that’s keeping you from being able to see or experience a resurrection in your life? What is keeping you from having an Easter moment?

Now I am not saying that we give up on things, or that we just quit, but that we open ourselves up to new possibilities, new realities and even new life. For example, if you are having difficulty in your marriage, or in a relationship, perhaps you need to let go of the way you used to be as a couple, or let go of some idealized vision of you have of relationships, in order to make way for new possibilities. If you want to go in a different direction, then you have to be willing to let go of and change the path you are on. If you want to lose weight, you have to let go of the idea that you can eat whatever you want.  If you want to integrate baseball, you have to let go of the opinions of others. If you want to violently remove a passenger from your airplane for not volunteering, then you need to let go of a billion dollars in market capitalization and lost business. Letting go is not about giving up, it’s about opening yourself up to new possibilities.  If you want to become a butterfly, you have to let go of being a caterpillar.

For Peter to understand the resurrection and the Easter moment, he had to let go of believing that his denial of Jesus on the last night was who he was. To encounter the living Christ, Mary had to let go of the idea that Jesus was dead and searching for his body. She had to let go of her expectations and about the way things were to free herself to see something new, to see the new life found not in Christ crucified, but in Christ resurrected. To find the new life that was blooming in the garden that day, to let go of the idea that death had the final answer and to remember and know that God has the final answer, that love wins. She had to let go.

Now people have been saying let go and let God, for a long time, and there’s a part to this, but that can also be a very passive take on life. What I am talking about is being active in your life and with God, so that we are co-creating our reality with God and allowing God to do amazing things in our life.

To witness miracles in our lives, we have to let go of not believing that miracles exist.
To see God’s movement in our lives, we have to let go of the idea that everything is up to us.
If you want to start loving more, you have to let go of hate, or worse, apathy.
If you want to start being more forgiving, you have to let go of holding grudges
If you want to be forgiven, you have to let go of not forgiving
If you want mercy, you have to let go of the idea that you don’t deserve it.
If you want to gain life, you have to let go of fearing death.
If you want to live life, you have to let go of the fears that hold us back.
If you want to gain hope, you have to let go of Easter being something we only recognize once a year, and celebrate it every day.
If you want this service to end on time, you have to let go of my continuing to go on forever.

What is it that you need to or want to let go of? On your bulletin insert, I want you to answer that question. What is it that you want to do and what do you need to let go of.  I want you to complete this statement. In order to _______, I need to let go of_________.  Just write down the words or phrase at the moment, but then when you get home write out the whole thing. And then make a plan about what you need to do to do that, and how you are going to get God involved, or what God needs to do with you and in you to make that happen.

Mary did not go to the tomb on that first Easter seeking or looking to find life. She went there, in grief, to find what she already knew was there, death, because she knew that was the end. But what she found was not death, but a new reality, a new answer, a new truth, a new future, a new certainty, that death does not win, that God wins, and love wins, and life wins, always, and then she let go of and following Jesus’ command to go and tell others, she became the apostle to the apostles, and we are here today because of that story and because others, starting with the disciples, were also willing to let go and let the reality of Easter permeate their lives. We too are called to let go and to go forth to make Easter a reality not just in our lives, but in the world. It’s time for us to let go. I pray that it will be so my brothers and sisters. Amen.

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