Life Takes Practice:
Letting Go (and Keeping On)
Fifth Sunday in Lent ● April 2, 2017
Reading: Hebrews 12:1-3
Pastor Jeff Wells
Do you strive to move forward or to accomplish some worthy task, yet continually feel anxiety and worry? Are you limited by feelings of fear or inadequacy? Is there a behavior, a belief, a past trauma, a present relationship, or something else that you feel is keeping you from your passion and your heart’s desire – from your calling? What is holding you back from living fully and abundantly? Of what, in your life do you need to let go?
Today and for the past five Sundays, we have been making the assertion that life takes practice and that there are life practices that we can use to help us to live fully alive and fully able to experience and contribute to the present moment. Today, we explore the practice of letting go. What does it mean to “let go”? You may have noticed that the title of this message says, “Letting Go (and Keeping On).” What I mean to convey is that we cannot live fully alive and engaged by only letting go. Letting go does not mean giving up. It does not mean hiding out. It does not mean being complacent. It does not mean not caring. And it certainly does not mean relying on God to provide everything for us without any effort of our own.
Letting Go is intimately tied with keeping on and with what Nehemiah talked about last Sunday – showing up. I believe there is a very real sense in which we are called to continually and daily “let go,” even while we keep on working, striving, moving, and growing. In other words, letting go is a way of being in the world. I take this as the message of the passage from the Letter to the Hebrews when it says, “let us lay aside everything that hinders us, and the sin that clings about us, and run with patient endurance the race that lies before us.” We are to continue running the race, even while letting go. Long distance runners often talk about the need to let go. You train and prepare, but when the day of the race comes, you need to let go of focusing on your pace and just be mindful of your body. You need let go even of competition or winning and just run freely and joyfully. When we can let go even while we continue to run the race with patient endurance, then we are less likely to grow weary or faint-hearted, as the scripture says.
I find in my vocation that I continually have to work at letting go of worry and anxiety, while at the very same time continuing, in collaborative ministry with all of you, to work for, pray for, strive forth the building up of this community and of God’s love and justice in the world. That’s not always easy, because nearly every day things occur that have the potential to produce anxiety. So I find that I need to remind myself to do my best and try to encourage and enable the best in others and then and give myself permission not to worry about specific outcomes. I have to recognize that my individual striving and our communal desires and striving can influence, but cannot control or determine exactly what will come of it all. I have to trust and we have to trust that as we work to build beloved community, our positive impact may ultimately be realized in ways that we cannot anticipate and may be very different than what we envisioned. Jesus made this same connection between letting go and keeping on in the Sermon on the Mount:
Do not be anxious about your life – what you can get to eat or drink, or about your body – what you can get to wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?. . .
God knows that you need them all. But first seek God’s realm and God’s justice, and all these things will be added for you.
I think he was saying, “keep working for God’s kin-dom and justice, but let go of your anxiety. It will not add one day to your life.”
So we need to regularly practice letting go of worry and anxiety and to release our need for specific outcomes. There may be other things that you feel called to let go of in your individual lives – perhaps fear of failure or feelings of inadequacy or the legacy of trauma or a habitual behavior or a part of your personality. Letting go of these kinds of things is sometimes a lifelong process and we may never be able to fully let go, but to the extent we try and are able to let go, we move more fully into abundant life.
There is another way we often need to “let go.” It is when we become conscious of something big in our lives that has been a very important part of our identity – perhaps for a very long time – but which is no longer giving us life and may be holding us back from a new direction or a new sense of meaning and purpose. One such story came to my mind as I considered this message and I have Jorge’s permission to share it. [Tell Jorge’s story of being with GBGM for 15 years, of selling his apartment with the intention of moving to Atlanta to continue that work, and at virtually the very last letting go of all of that to come work at the Church of the Village.]
Jennifer and Mike’s story / Lukas’s story. Beautiful story available on our FB page.
As many of us have experienced, at various stages of our lives, we may need to let go of certain activities and recognize new realities. As I approach my 60th birthday, I have had a series significant health issues over the past two years that have required me to let go of the conception of myself as a someone immune from such concerns. I have had to let go of a certain overconfidence and be more attentive to my body and a bit more careful.
Finally, I want to be very clear that I am not saying we let go of our righteous anger and our desire for and advocacy for justice. We must never forget and in fact must help to keep alive the memory of Eric Garner and other victims of racist police brutality and extra-judicial violence, the pain of those left behind like Mrs. Snipes-Garner, and those who live with anxiety and fear over the safety of themselves and their loved ones. We are never absolved from the struggle for justice. Letting go does not mean giving up or not caring. But the reality is that in this case and so many, we may have to let go of specific vision of what justice might look like or even of seeing God’s justice come fully to fruition in our lifetime. I am especially fond of this quote from theologian Reinhold Neibuhr:
“Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we must be saved by love.”
I feel very deeply and painfully the need to let go of specific outcomes in our current crossroads in the United Methodist Church. As most of you know, last year for the first time in its history, a significant number of openly queer candidates for ordained ministry were commissioned and ordained in the New York Annual Conference and across the country. In addition, Karen Oliveto was elected as the first openly lesbian bishop in the UMC. These commissionings, ordinations, and Karen’s election are being challenged by forces of homophobia and exclusion and at the level of the Judicial Council (sort of the Supreme Court of our denomination). Our own Pastor Elyse Ambrose is one of those named in the complaints before the Judicial Council, which will meet the last weekend in April to consider the fate of all of these amazing and committed pastors. We will pray for Pastor Elyse and others in a few minutes and will continue to pray every Sunday and throughout the week until the Judicial Council meets. The larger context is that the United Methodist Church has been in struggle between the forces of inclusion and those pushing to continue exclusion for 45 years and we seem to be heading for a denouement. There is a commission working to find a “way forward,” but I have to admit that I am not hopeful about the prospects. My own opinion is that there is no way forward that everyone will agree to and we may need to let go of whatever desire for unity we might have had. We may need to let go of the concept of the United Methodist Church as we have known it and consider the possibility of some new alliance of progressive and radically inclusive communities. We may need to open ourselves to something new God is doing among us. And, on the other hand, I am completely confident that no matter what happens to the denomination, The Church of the Village will continue to be the progressive, radically inclusive, beloved community that is is now and I know that I don’t need a vote of the Vision and Ministry Council or the Personnel Committee to say that whatever decision the Judicial Council or any other church body makes, Pastor Elyse will continue to be our pastor for as long as she desires to be.
So let go and keep on keeping on….
Keep seeking God’s kin-dom and justice.
Keep running the race, but with as much ease and grace and courage and even joy as possible.
Because in the midst of ….