Sunday, June 22, 2014
A Sermon: "Letting Go"
Year A Proper 7 June 22, 2014
St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church
There are some Sundays when the sermons flow. I read the lectionary, and immediately something comes to mind. An image, an idea, a “word from the Lord.” I really believe that the Holy Spirit is at work right now. I trust that what I am saying is at a prompting from the Holy Spirit.
Also, I trust, you are chewing on what I am saying, even if it is “Where is he going with this?” Some weeks are easy and immediate. This week was not.
As I read through the lectionary readings for the umpteenth time, it struck me that it was a time for a priest to make a confession. I have a hard time with today’s readings. Every one of them is a hard one. There is no easy one in the bunch.
Some Sundays, I can use an easy one to slide into a harder passage. But not this week.
Look with me, if you will. In Genesis we have Hagar being banished by Abraham at Sarah’s encouraging so the Sarah’s son Isaac will not have to share his inheritance with Hagar’s son Ishmael. Now if you remember how this all transpired, Sarah encouraged Abraham to take Hagar, who was Sarah’s handmaid, and produce an heir. Remember, this was all Sarah’s idea! But then out of worry, she banishes them to likely death. They are sent out into the arid land with a wineskin of water. And eventually Hagar and Ishmael run out of water, and fully expect to die. Such a loving act!
Or we could look at the Romans passage, where the Apostle Paul makes an argument for dying to sin so that we can live in Christ. With the dying metaphor, and all the back and forth on sin, it also is a hard place to start.
Then we get to Jesus. It is like a compilation album in chapter 10, The Greatest Hits of Instructions to Those Being Sent Out. Matthew almost seems to have taken several remembered lines from Jesus and brought them together for Jesus’ followers commissioning. But even though these are rules for the road, to our ears when we hear about not loving Father and Mother, Son and Daughter, or taking up our own cross and following, I know I get wrangled.
So what are we going to do this Sunday?
Instead of spinning and making this all easy, today we are going to talk about letting go. In the children’s time I told the story of a little boy clinging to what he had, not knowing he was missing out on something greater because he could not let go of the little he had, nor could he envision something so much better that he would forget about what he held onto so tightly.
Sometimes we have to do exactly that. We hold onto what little we have because we cannot see that something greater is just beyond our sight. And not letting go can lead to disaster.
In a previous job, I used to be the recruiter for a seminary. It was my job to drive around to colleges, set up times to meet with professors and chaplains, talk with pre-ministerial candidates, and tell them the benefits of my school. Often several seminaries would organize these trips together so that we could get a bigger draw and meet with more people. One of the other recruiters was named Mac, and he drove a twenty-year-old diesel Mercedes. And he loved that car. On a joint recruiting trip, we were between small Kentucky college towns, and the fastest way to get from one to the other was over backroads through the country. Mac was running late, and when he was an hour late for our meetings at the next college we all became a little worried. When he finally arrived he told us this story. While holding on to his coffee, he was coming over a ridge, and abruptly on the other side the road curved. They did not have the blaze orange warning arrows to redirect drivers. Well, because he was already late, his speed was such that he did not follow the curve but went straight into the yard of the mobile home situated there. He hit his brakes, but the wet Kentucky bluegrass caused him to slide sideways with his rather hefty twenty-year-old Mercedes diesel made from solid steel. Sliding sideways over the grass, he hit the mobile home with such force it knocked it off its foundation. He was a bit shaky after all of this, and looking down he noticed that he was still holding his coffee cup in his hand. He also shared that maybe his priorities were a bit out of whack. A wrecked but drivable car, a stranger’s house sustaining serious damage, but his coffee is unspilt. He was clinging to the wrong things. How much are we like Mac?
Jesus tells those he has called, “Listen up, if they called the teacher the devil, what do you think they are going to call his followers? What do you expect?”
Later he goes on, “Do not fear those that can kill the body but cannot kill the soul...” He does not mince words, when you go out, you do not need to fear death. This is graduate level faith here. We are not talking about “love everybody” level. We are talking about the costs of discipleship, and it can be hard things to hear.
“Present me before others, and I will present you before my Father. Don’t, and neither will I.” Ouch. Okay.
We need to let go of our worries, about how others see us, about how we are going to fare. Like the Adidas ads I see all over the World Cup games, “All in or nothing.” They could be Jesus’ words instead of a slogan for shoes.
Jesus said: "10:34Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.35 For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; 36 and one's foes will be members of one's own household.
37 Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; 38 and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.
39 Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.
These are hard words. Very hard words. Jesus asks of those who follow, to make this their first priority. Here he emphasizes this with images of infighting amongst those closest to us, but he has put it this way in another setting: “Seek first the Kingdom of God and God’s righteousness.” (Matthew 6:33)
This is and must be our first priority, and if it is there is a promise, “all this shall be added unto you.” Or, as one of my seminary professors translated it, “And everything else will fall into place.”
Does this make the path easy? Of course not. We still hold onto those things that bring us meager comfort because we forget the better that is to come.
Paul’s whole argument in the Romans’ passage is about letting go. “Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it?”
We have to let go of those little comforts we cling to so closely. Some of those things are good things, family, comfort, entertainment. Some of those things are our addictions or sins that we have a hard time releasing. If it is not Christ, we are called to give them over to him.
Notice I said give them over to Jesus, not let them go. If it is addictions or sins, obviously those are things we need to drop. But Father or Mother? Spouse? Children? These are the very gifts of God. Do we drop them? As Paul said, “By no means!” But as we entrust them to Christ, and put Christ first, how could they be in better hands?
A story is told of children during World War II who were placed in refugee camps after having been orphaned in the horrible destruction. They had food, good care, and a safe place to sleep, but sleep often would not come. The children, despite all the care, were not able to let go of the terrors that had put them in the refugee camps. Those who cared for the children were at a loss, until someone came up with the idea of giving the children a piece of bread with which to sleep at night. The children held onto those rolls of bread, and sleep was finally able to come. The children held in their hands a promise that tomorrow would be okay.
They were children, and the clung to the bread because they emotionally could not understand that tomorrow they would receive the same tomorrow. They could not see the promise.
For children this makes sense. But are we children as well? Do we cling to those things that bring us momentary comfort because we do not see the promise of tomorrow?
And what of the situations where we do not choose to let go of something? What do we do when we are told that things are being taken away? The moving and unjust story of Hagar and Ishmael is a perfect example of this. She did everything that had been asked of her! No matter how unjust we see it. She did all that was asked of, or forced upon, her.
What about our situations? When we lose a job because we did the RIGHT thing? Or we come home, and our spouse tells us that what we has assumed was a lifetime promise is over? When a child is tragically taken from us? Where is God in those situations?
God is even there. Hagar had set the child Ishmael down so she did not have to see him die, and wandered a distance away, when she then hears God’s words from an angel and sees the well right there. God is even there at the end of her rope.
From today’s Psalm:
86:10 For you are great and do wondrous things; you alone are God.
16 Turn to me and be gracious to me; give your strength to your servant; save the child of your serving girl.
These are hard words, but necessary words. We have to let it go. Whatever it is that clings too closely. Whatever it is that prevents us from growing deeper in Christ. The great reversals of Jesus promise a future different from the world we are living in. The meek will inherit the earth. The last will be first. The seekers will become the finders.
We need to let go because something greater than we can possible imagine is coming down the road. We hold onto things that are distractions at best, life-crushing sins at worst. Of all the great reversals of Jesus, no challenge is greater, nor is any promise.
39 Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.