Monday, 09 April 2012 00:00

"Holding on and Letting Go", Easter, April 8, 2012

“Holding on and Letting Go”
John 20:11-18
A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
Easter Sunday
April 8, 2012
University Baptist Church
Minneapolis, MN

Easter is such a wonderful day. We enjoy the fragrance of flowers. We celebrate the commitment symbolized in the baptismal waters. We welcome back the colors of spring. We emerge from out Lenten doldrums with a renewed commitment to the new life we see all around us.

And this weekend, we imagine what it might be like to live just three days after the death of a loved one.  The friends and family of Gary Tinsley who died on Friday know what this is like especially.  One of the football players told me at the vigil on Friday night at Wilkins Hall that it was times like these that you realized what’s truly important.  So true, and it’s especially sad when we learn the lesson in such a hard way.  While we don’t expect Gary to come back after three days and walk among us, we wonder how we might be different because of his life, because of his death.  How might we want to enter this new era without him? This is the conundrum all of us go through as we encounter the death of a loved one.  How do we go on?  We know we need to let go, but we all want to hold on.  We fear that letting go will mean that we will not be properly honoring his or her memory.


Mary went to that garden on Easter morning. She expected to see a tomb, a dead body and a visceral reminder of the agony of her beloved Jesus.  We can imagine that she went there with spices and flowers to anoint Jesus’ body and send him on his way to the next life.

I can imagine she psyched herself up for this.  It was not a pretty sight to see him on the cross.  Now in the tomb for three days, it would have been even more gruesome.  I imagine her needing to remind herself, “it’s not him, not really.  He’s not here any more.  It’s just a body.”  Many of us have had that same experience at a funeral home.  There’s a serenity in knowing that the pain is over for our dearly departed and we live through our own pain.

So, as she tentatively approached the garden tomb, she found the stone rolled away and the body gone. Of course she was upset. Who would steal a body? What else could they do to him? And to add insult to injury, she couldn’t do the only thing she wanted to, to give herself some closure. She just wanted to clean him up and say a final prayerful goodbye. But alas the tomb was empty.

We know what happened next, Mary saw the risen Jesus in the garden. Was it real? Was he a ghost? Was she not seeing straight through her grief? But he called her by name, “Mary”.  And she knew.

But what did she know?  She knew that this was Jesus who had conquered death.  Okay, so now what?  Was he going to make everything all better?  Was he going to stick around?  Was he going to give some more wisdom? Or was he going to pass him mantle on to others—Mary in particular.  What does this life mean?

Last June, I went to the island of Iona in the Hebrides off the coast of Scotland. Iona is where St. Columba established a monastery in the 6th century CE. Ruins of the ancient monastery and abbey still exist. In the last century, large portions of it were restored as a peace and justice retreat center. It has been a pilgrimage site for 1500 years. It’s often called a thin place where the veil between this life and God is quite close. People come to Iona to connect with the mystery that is God. They come to mark a milestone in their lives. They come to scatter the ashes of a loved one. They come to be renewed and recommit themselves to a faithful and fruitful life.

On that remote island steeped in history and mystery they see not only God, but look to see themselves with new eyes.  I was there during my Sabbatical with no real agenda other than to let go and to experience this thin place.  I also had in my suitcase, a small stone urn filled with some of the ashes of our dear UBC sister Jan Bienhoff.

As part of my week there, we went on a day-long pilgrimage walk around the island:

We stopped at holy sites, the cross that marked the slaughter of the monks by the Vikings in the 9th century.  
We visited the ruins of the nunnery where we contemplated the many women who have influenced us in our lives.

We stopped by a hermit’s cave where we might seek insight and focus.

We paused at a crossroads and contemplated the choices we make in our lives.

Finally, we reached St. Columba’s beach. This is where Columba was said to have landed his boat on Iona.  He had been fleeing Ireland. He had been a leader of scribes in Ireland, but when a dispute erupted over a Psalm translation, which he oversaw, hundreds of his monks had been slaughtered. He fled in shame stopping at islands along the way and looking back at Ireland. It is said that when he arrived at Iona, he looked back and could no longer see Ireland. He wept and the legend is that his tears fell onto the rocks, turning them green. If you look close enough, you can find pieces of green marble there on the Columba beach. The beach is filled with rocks, not sand. The stones are smooth and jagged, brown and red and green and white. As we approached the shore, we saw how people had made a labyrinth out of rocks. Another had made a design out of the colored rocks looking like a grave mound. It was hard not to look down and pick up a nice rock that we would like to take home. There is so much history there, so much beauty, so much light and enlightenment. Such an ancient connection with the water and the shore and the pressure on the stones, rendering them a certain shape and design. We wondered what insight others had on that beach.

Think about a stone.  It takes heat, pressure and time.  It is tossed and turned and heated and cooled to attain its shape and hue.  Many of us are like that.  We are who we are because of the tossing and turning we have done in our lives.  We are smoothed by the sands of time.  We are polished by patience.  We are cut and cracked by tragedy.

Soon, we were all at the beach with piles of stones in our hands and in our pockets. We are then encouraged to take our favorite stone, the one that speaks to us the most. We’re told to pick it up, hold it, feel its weight. Think about all that we hold. Think about the gifts that we have.  Think about the challenges that we face. And then we were encouraged to throw it into the water. It’s not good to hold onto that which we need to release. Throw it into the water so that we are no longer defined by the weights that we hold. We cling to material things. Let them go. Remember that life is a gift. And we were given a gift that is to be shared. Let go of what holds you back. Let go of even what is most comfortable. Take it and throw it away. Someone else will find it and find value in it.

I think of the disciples on that first Sunday morning after the death of Jesus, at the garden or holed away in the upper room. They were cut by tragedy. They were jagged by experience. They were smoothed in old ways of dealing with the world. And they knew precious little about going forward. The Easter message is that there is a way of going forward with new life, and the disciples eventually found it. There is a way of moving on. But before you can do that you need to let go of the old ways. The risen Jesus said, “Don’t hold me, don’t cling to me.”  David Bartlett said in his workshop a month ago, “the only Jesus who lives is the Jesus who changes. Don’t look back and try to recapture the old way. Look forward. Don’t hinder the journey.”

What holds you down?  What old behaviors or old beliefs weigh down your pockets?  What comfortable ways have held you?  Held you in check, held you back from being whom God called you to be?

Jesus died on the so-called Good Friday, an execution carried out by the state in collusion with religion. They thought they could use the ultimate weapon of violence and fear to not only kill Jesus, but to so scare people that they would run away and hide, if they knew what was good for them. That was the way of the world. It had always been that way. It was carved into the rocks on the ground. It was battered by the sea. Everyone knew that this was the way of the world.

But on Easter, God rolled away the stone of the tomb. God rolled away the stones of fear and violence. God broke the clear stones of time and upset the order of the world. And people began to do something different. They took the things that had made sense out of their world and tossed it into the figurative sea. They embraced a new way of encountering the world. They chose not to let the old ways define them. And they started a movement. This movement said not only that death was not the final answer, but evil was not the way of God. Fear was not the way of God’s people. Prejudice is just another rock that we hold onto. We are embracing something else.

We are embracing hope.

We are embracing peace.

We are embracing justice.

We are embracing mercy.

We are embracing compassion.

We are no longer going to be weighed down by old ways.

We are going to let them go.

They no longer have power over us.

Instead, we are going to embrace a way of discipleship that looks at the world in a new way.

We are going to embrace a way of living that transforms enemies into friends.

We are going to embrace a way of living that brings hope to a hopeless people.

We are going to embrace a way of living that sets prisoners free and declares the acceptable year of God’s favor.

We are going to remember the best of a loved one, and use that memory as a springboard to be the best person, the best people we can be.

That’s what Easter is about. It’s about letting go of the old shackles of your life and holding on to the new perspective that can and does bring life and hope and love to a world in need.

Anita, we have seen you take on the waters of Baptism. It is a ritual older than Christianity. And you are now connected with all those who have gone before and all those who will follow you. It is a way of symbolizing the fact that you have let go of an old life and are holding on to a new one.  We do this by immersion because it is an all encompassing commitment.  The old you is washed away and the new one emerges just as you did, sputtering and amazed by the new perspective that we all see dripping wet before us.  And as we look at you, we remember our own vows.  Our own longing.  Those things that we still need to leave behind, those barriers that we have.  And vicariously through you, we emerge once again in newness of life.

When the disciples entered into the days and weeks and years after that first Easter, they had to constantly let go of the old way of doing things. The Acts of the Apostles tells the story of how churches were divided over how to live in the world: how to govern themselves; how to witness to the new revelation of God in their lives. Some were more successful than others. They needed to not only let go of their old lives, but cling to something new. This is what they discovered in their communities of faith. They discovered a new and renewed way of being in the world. And it was good news indeed.

As I was instructed, I took the weight of the stone urn out of my suitcase and I buried it in a special place on the island of Iona.  Today it remains there, mingled with flowers in the Nunnery garden where women go to reconnect with their most important relationships. And as I buried that stone, I was able to let go a bit of the burden I was carrying.  It was an honor to carry this and fulfill her family’s wishes.  It also marked a change in the way I addressed the rest of the trip. This burial, this letting go, gave a sense of closure. Our loved ones would not want us to stop our lives.  They would want us to remember and to live a better and more fulfilling life because of their presence.  That, my friends is a resurrection. So, that’s what I focused on in my remaining days there on Iona.

I walked the stone labyrinth on St. Columba’s beach to contemplate what I was willing to let go of and what I will hold on to.  As we contemplated what we left behind on that beach on the island of Iona, we were encouraged by our guides to not only let go of the old, but to cling to something new.  We were encouraged to pick a stone that symbolized our new life.  And invariably it was a different color and a different shape than the one we had taken before. I brought a stone for Dave and Ellie and Estelle from that very beach.  But it was only a symbol of the new life that we seek to live.

At the end of today’s service I invite you to come forward and take a stone.  Take one that speaks to you.

May it remind you of this day.

May it remind you of your baptismal vows.

May it remind you of your commitments.

May it remind you of those you hold dear.

It will remind you of who you long to be.

It can go in your pocket.

It can live on your desk, on your home altar, on the piano keyboard.

It is a symbol of who you want to be.

But not only that, it is also a symbol that you do not do this alone.

You seek and embrace a new life on this Easter Sunday surrounded by others who have made similar commitments.

Sisters and brothers, on Easter Sunday, God through Jesus showed that the ways of this world do not have ultimate power. Rather, when we connect with a power beyond ourselves that is always benevolent, always healing, always good, then we can face the world with renewed hope and life. If we let go of all those burdens which impede our growth and weigh us down, then we are freed to pick up those behaviors, thoughts and actions which will lead to healing and hope.

The Good News of Easter is that Christ has risen.  But the even better news is that because Christ has risen, or in evidence that Christ has risen, there is a part of us that has risen, too.

Tossed, tattered and torn as we are, we are polished to bring new life to a world in need.  We let go of our death-clinging ways and hold on to the new life emerging today.  That’s what Easter is all about.  That’s how Christ lives.  So, when we proclaim the mystery that Christ has risen, may our actions say that Christ is risen indeed.  
Christ is risen.  Christ is risen indeed.