Sermon: “Letting Go”
Delivered at ARK Community Church, Dalton MA
Easter, April 20 2014.
As you know, I often speak of the many ways God holds on to us, and how we are called to claim Jesus for our own, and called to hold on to Christ and to God’s love. But, Easter is not about holding on!
Let us pray…
Lord, on this Easter morning, we celebrate your victory over death, and with it your promise of new life in our own futures. Open the scriptures before us, and enable me to clearly communicate what you intend for us to receive here today. May your gospel live within each and every one of us, driving all despair and fear from our hearts.
We rejoice in this opportunity for new revelations and a deeper understanding of your call to walk before you, spreading your gospel to all nations. We ask that your Word live and work through us to amaze and transform not only our own lives, but the lives of all whom we encounter. Help us to embody your teachings, and to live them, in all that we do, think, speak, and are.
In Jesus Name, Amen.
It’s Easter. At the start of our reading from John this morning, Mary Magdalene is alone in the predawn light, weeping before the empty tomb. The mortal remains of the man she loves are missing. Although she doesn’t know it yet, Jesus has been set free from the bonds of death.
As I said earlier, Easter is not about holding on. John makes this clear by telling us that once Mary realizes who is standing before her, Jesus says, “Do not cling to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father.”
It seems that holding on to Jesus frustrates the plan of God! Jesus the man is again alive, just like Lazarus; but the transformation of the man into the Christ is not yet complete. Jesus is still in the process of as he puts it, of “ascending to my God and your God.”
Mary is given a role in this when he says, “Go to my brothers and tell them….” Her mission involves leaving him behind and carrying his message to all who believe. Her task is to let go, to forever turn away from the man she loves.
I imagine this was very hard for Mary. He was lost, and now he’s found. He was dead, but is alive again. Her arms ache to hold on to the man she loves, the man she’d given up as forever lost. What would happen when she turned her back to leave? Would she ever see him again? She must have asked herself whether her heart could bear losing him again. Turning away was a big risk.
Many ponder how close Jesus and Mary Magdalene were. What is clear is that Mary, at the very least, was one of the most prominent and important of Jesus’ followers, a fact that the many (almost all male) hands that wrote, edited and transmitted the scriptures to us down through the centuries, could not entirely ignore, or erase.
Whatever the nature of their bond, the relationship between Jesus and Mary was special, intimate, and important to both of them. She is the only person whom all four gospels agree was among those who witnessed the tomb that should not have been empty.
And yet Jesus told her to let go, and to leave: despite his love for her, and her love for him. And hard as it was, she does as he asks, even though it meant leaving the man he was behind, forever. This transition in the nature of their relationship must have been painful for both of them.
We cannot hold on to those we love forever, even though letting go always means exposing them to dangers and risks that we’ve been determined to move heaven and earth to protect them from. We all know this. We all feel this every time we watch our children get on that school bus. Every time we visit our aging parents or grandparents, and every time we allow someone we love to strike out on their own.
We all know that holding on to someone too tightly prevents them from becoming the person they are meant to be. It also means that we are limiting ourselves to being their caretaker, and not allowing ourselves to grow and become the person we are meant to be, either.
Jesus gives two mandates here: asking first that Mary not hold on to him, so that he can fulfill his own destiny, and then commanding her to go forth, so that she can fulfill hers. They need each other, they love each other, and they want desperately to hold on to each other, but it cannot be. They both realize this. For God’s plan to be realized in both of them, and all of us, they must let go.
This is a truth we often overlook. How long can we hold on to someone in the name of preserving them and our love for them unchanged, before we are denying them the ability and right to achieve the plan God has for them? After all, our faith is a journey, not a goal. It is not static. Faith requires movement, and movement requires change. The earliest Christians made this plain by calling their faith “The Way.” Faith isn’t a place, or a state of being: it is a journey.
And so, I know I can’t keep my own children safe within the walls of my home forever. If I don’t let them take risks when they are ready, they will never learn how to be the confident, independent, responsible, creative, compassionate, and loving human beings they are meant to be.
Yes, letting my son walk or bike to and from school (once he’s old enough) will entail risk. After all, he could climb a tree on the way home and fall. He could be hit by a car, beat up by a bully, or even kidnapped. But, how many of these risks are simply my own fears, driving me to control his life, and how many of them are so severe and likely that I cannot afford to let him take any risk at all?
The choice is plain: will I let my own fears drive me to control those I love in the name of keeping them safe? Will I try to create what I see as a risk-free life for them, doing only what I, as the elder and wiser party, tell them is OK, and safe, to do? Is such a life one that anyone would want to lead?
If so, they will never learn to be mature, responsible adults. They will never gain confidence in their own abilities, and they’ll never learn how to survive and thrive amidst the challenges of this world. I would be blocking the path that God intends for them to follow; an obstacle that is resented, not loved, for my efforts.
And as for me, I wouldn’t be entrusting them to the God whom I claim to love and trust myself, nor will they learn to trust God for themselves. I’ll be taking their fates into my own hands, setting myself up in place of God. I’ll be making an idol of myself and my own life experience, in effect saying that even the opportunity to gain life experience and new skills or new confidence for themselves, has no value and is not worthy of consideration, because it’s too risky.
Do we really want to say that? … We do!
Walking through the streets of today’s towns and cities, I’ve been struck by a single common theme: no one is outside any more. Rarely do you see kids playing in the yard. Nobody chats on their porches, if they even have porches. I never see lawns worn down to the bare earth by active young feet. Yes, playgrounds are full of kids – but kids with parents, or perhaps coaches – supervised activities with playground and sports equipment that is oh so carefully engineered to be “safe.”
How often have you heard a teen or preteen say, “there’s nothing to do!” and ask to go to the mall, or perhaps ask to be driven over to a friend’s house? They don’t feel empowered, and don’t have the skills, experience or self-confidence they need to be empowered: we’ve never given them the chance to learn. They’ve never had to deal with failure because we keep them safe; and they’ve never had a chance to exercise and grow the spark of creativity and invention that God has placed in each one of us.
We work so hard to keep those we love safe: alarm systems; baby monitors, gated communities; GPS trackers in kids’ shoes; hand sanitizer gel; traffic jams in school driveways every morning and afternoon; and pesticides fogging our yards in an attempt to prevent insect-born illnesses … and remember this old ad? “… I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!”
All these measures often seem reasonable by themselves, and are. They do eliminate or control risks that are real, even if sometimes remote. But, when you look at the larger picture, you realize that maybe we’ve gone too far. Each time we choose to add a new layer of protection for ourselves or those we love, we are strengthening the walls that divide us from others, including those closest to us. We are raising barriers to having full and fruitful relationships with others, all in the name of safety. Every relationship always requires risk if it is to achieve the fullness it is capable of.
So, I believe this trend that is so prevalent nowadays, to try and eliminate all possible risks for ourselves and our loved ones, is part of what lies behind the decline of so many of our institutions: churches, social groups and clubs, and the decline in our participation in local politics. Even our close friends are becoming fewer and not as close in both geographic and absolute terms; and our substitute for them is Facebook!
We cannot eliminate all risk: trying to do so is futile, and we know it. The Bible clearly teaches this, as John shows in this passage through both the angel’s removal of the stone put up by Pilate’s soldiers to block access to Jesus’ body, and the resurrection itself. Trying to wall ourselves and others off from all potential for harm is actually harmful. By eliminating risk, we damage the growth and development of ourselves and of those we seek to protect. And, we limit our ability to grow and develop deeper, more meaningful and more fruitful connections with the people and communities of which we are a part.
And so we come back to that scene before the tomb, to Mary, weeping before the man she loves. Jesus tells her to turn away, to leave him behind and go tell the others that he has risen. …And, she does so – the first of that multitude of which we are all a part.
The Creator let go of Jesus, despite knowing the risks and dangers. Letting go despite the certainty that Jesus would be rejected and would die. God risked the ultimate separation from Jesus because without letting go, the healing and reconciliation of the rest of God’s children, and all of creation, could not happen. All of Creation would have been condemned to remaining forever trapped behind walls we’d built for ourselves. For us to overcome the barriers that separated us from each other and from God, God had to let go of Jesus, and this in turn was an example for us, as shown here before the tomb, between Mary and Jesus. Mary was ready to let go, just as Jesus was. She had learned all she could from the man, and was ready to spread the Gospel of Christ.
One of the great lessons of Easter is that we don’t need the man any more. Jesus the man cannot protect us from the world, nor do we need such protection. Instead, we have the Christ: the Christ who trusts us to do the right thing, and who has empowered us to do so. The Christ who proves that our Lord in Heaven is there for us, and will not fail to take good care of us when the time comes; the Christ who trusts God, and calls for us to do the same. The Christ who achieved the purpose that God intended since the beginning of time only once Mary Magdalene let go of Jesus.
Are we ready to let go? Only by letting go can we raise our hands to rejoice in the goodness and grace of our God. Only by letting go can we respond to God’s call to go and preach the good news, and only by letting go will our hands be free to reach out to those around us who are struggling to stand on their own.
Rejoice, for Easter is God’s call to let go and go forth, and the sign that God knows we are ready and able to do so.
Copyright (c) 2014, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved. I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or gaining) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given. (e.g., via a credit that gives my full name and/or provides a link back to this site – or just email me and ask!)