Sermon, March 27, 2016

Holding On and Letting Go, Part II
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder
The Congregational Church of the United Church of Christ,
Bradford, Vermont
March 27, 2016 Easter
Psalm 118; John 20:1-18

Mary Magdalene could not sleep.
She left the house when it was still dark.
She walked the hard, deserted Jerusalem streets
and went out the city gate to the garden
of tombs down in the valley.
She went to be with the one
who had changed her life, her beloved teacher,
even though she knew she could not really
be with him. He was dead, and a heavy stone
kept even his cold body from her.
She went thinking she could not feel
emptier than she did,
only to find the stone rolled away, the tomb
empty, and the one thing she had left
to hold onto taken from her.
She ran back to the house
half-crazed with fear and grief
and told the others,
and then returned to the garden.
Where else could Mary go?
He was everything to her.
It felt as if she had reached
the end of all roads, as if
there were no road she could take
that could possibly lead out of that place.
It felt like the end of her life.
All that remained was the grieving love
pouring out of the empty tomb of her heart.

Mary Magdalene stood weeping
by the rolled away stone
as the day dawned,
and Christ came to her there.

He spoke her name, the sound
she wanted to hear most in the whole world.
She rushed toward him full of ecstatic joy
with her arms spread wide to embrace him,
but he said no. He stopped her.
Mary would have held onto the risen Christ,
but he told her to let him go.
Imagine that. Imagine losing what you love most,
then getting it back only to be told
you may not keep it.
Imagine Mary’s overpowering yearning to hold on
so that she would never be separated again.
Imagine how hard that letting go would be,
how the grief would reach
to the very bottom of your deepest soul,
and tear your heart in two.
It would feel like a kind of living death.

But “let go” was not all that Jesus said.
He said, “Do not hold onto me
because I have not yet ascended to God.”
Then he sent Mary to tell the others,
“I am ascending to my God and your God.”
Jesus took away his being in the flesh
but gave Mary back his being in God.
He gently kept himself apart from her arms
but gave her others to embrace.
He gave her a path to follow, a world to serve.
Still, letting go, turning, walking away
must have been the hardest thing
Mary had ever done, not knowing
if she would ever see him again,
maybe beginning already to wonder
if seeing him had been just a dream.

We know that it was real,
we know that it was not just a dream,
we know that Christ is not dead
because by letting go completely
of her desire to hold onto him
as she wanted him to be,
Mary gained him completely
and became what he wanted her to be,
so that it was no longer she who lived
but Christ who lived in her.
By letting go of Christ in the flesh
she let him live within her flesh,
so that wherever she went
he was with her, and wherever he led,
she was free to follow.
And where he led was to God,
and where he led was to beloved community,
calling her to help others follow him to God.

We may wish that we had some other proof
that Christ rose from the dead,
but what we have is this:
that when we follow Christ’s way
of self-emptying love,
we can experience a connection to God,
the Spirit and community that feels
like a gift from beyond, that feels miraculous,
as if Christ himself is alive
and at work within and among us.

The living Christ comes to us
as a father comes to his little daughter
who has climbed into an apple tree
and now clings to the low branches in fear,
not knowing how to get down.
The father says to the little girl,
let go, and I will catch you.
For a long time her frightened mind
keeps saying no, it is not safe,
it keeps her isolated and unhappy,
but finally she decides to trust,
and lets go and falls and lands
in those loving arms and is free.
She is connected to the source of love and joy
and the comfort of a deep, deep peace.
Christ is giving us the secret of life,
the secret of the deepest peace and joy and love,
which is to let go of the life we cling to
out of a fearful or despairing desire,
let go of our self-concern and self-interest
and allow ourselves to be led by the love of Christ,
letting go of the practice of holding on
and holding onto the practice of letting go.

What the resurrection teaches us is that dying
to this life, self-emptying, letting go
of our attachment to things,
is not the end but the beginning,
the birth of our true life in God.
The resurrection tells us that there is something more,
something greater than this life we now have
that our dying to our old way of life
will lead us to become.

Once upon a time there was a community
of acorns living at the base of a great oak tree.
They were proud of what they were,
and kept their little caps on straight,
and kept their shells glossy and hard.
One day a passing blue jay accidentally
dropped an acorn into their midst.
It looked old and beat up.
It was missing its cap. It had a dirty,
scarred shell and smelled of rot.
The shiny acorns gathered around it
in disgust and mistrust, keeping a safe distance,
listening to its story.
It told what it had seen and learned,
and ended by pointing up
at the great oak tree, with wonder and awe,
saying, “We. . . are. . . that!”
The other acorns scoffed and said it was crazy.
The old acorn shook his head and pointed down
and said, “All we have to do to become a great oak
is let ourselves fall into the dirt
until we soften and crack open our shell.”
“Who would want to do that?” they yelled indignantly.
“Then we wouldn’t be acorns!”
[adapted from Jacob Needleman and Cynthia Bourgeault]

Christ’s way of resurrection
is something we have to choose.
We can have the new life Christ offers
if we are willing to sacrifice our old life for it,
or we are free to settle for a life of polishing our shells.
It is up to you to decide
whether you believe there is an oak
inside you, and whether you are willing
to die to the acorn to grow into that tree.

Mary Magdalene had first come to Jesus
when she was tired of being the acorn that she was.
She came ready to be healed and changed.
She let go of her old life and took hold of a new life
rooted and grounded in the love of Christ.
She became an oak among the disciples.
She became a person
she did not even know she could be.

Now as she walked away
dying inside as she let Jesus go,
she was cracking open again
to become something even greater,
just as his death and resurrection
had made Jesus something greater.

The way of death and resurrection offers
to change us into something greater,
from acorns to oaks, from saplings
into ever more mature and majestic trees,
from joy to ever greater joy
as we give more and more of ourselves to God
and become more and more like Christ.
The way of death and resurrection
offers to transform us into our truest, best selves,
so we fulfill our calling and all our gifts.
It invites us into the dark ground
of letting go and self-emptying,
but then a new shoot like a green flame rises
from our cracked-open heart.
It leads us up into the life-giving light
of a new dawn and a new spring,
where we bear the fruit of love a hundredfold.
We learn to trust that every death
leads to greater and more joyous life,
so that when the day comes at last
for our physical dying from this world
we can let go with the same peace and joy and love
with which we lived our days,
knowing with all the certainty of our hearts
that we are falling into God’s arms again,
only to rise again
into the light.

It is natural to fear death, but the reason we are here,
the reason Easter has been celebrated
with hope and triumphant jubilation
for two thousand years is that Christ
has given us something other than fear
to feel about death. He has given us
the feeling of warm sun on our face in late March,
he has given us the sight of swelling buds
and the sweet scent of Easter lilies,
he has given us the taste on our happy tongues
of maple sap freshly boiled to perfection,
he has given us the sound of snowmelt flowing,
he has given us all these joys of spring
and all the hope of new life rising
out of the wintry ground, and he has said
you can have this in your life,
you can be part of this great irrepressible
and eternal flow of resurrection.
The power of God and the Holy Spirit
are waiting only for you to say yes,
the whole creation is waiting with eager longing
for you to fulfill the one precious opportunity
that you have been given
to rise to your full stature and love and serve
as you were born to do.
What will be your choice?
What do you need to let go of today
so that you can take hold of
the new, joyous life that is waiting in you
to rise into the light?
Let us pray in silence…