Listen to the sermon from Sunday, March 5, 2017 titled “Let Go” by Rev. Stephanie Cooper.
One day in the 5th grade, our teacher Ms. Painter at Highland Heights Elementary School stood in front of the class and told us that we were going to write letters that day. She said that we were going to write letters to people we’ve never met. She said, “It’ll be sort of like messages in a bottle. You’ll write your letter, and later today, we will roll those letters up very tightly, and carefully insert them into balloons. And before we leave school today, we’re going to fill those balloons with helium and release them into the air.
So we began writing our letters as she gave us a basic outline to follow. By the fifth grade I deemed myself an expert in letter writing because… I had a pen pal in Muncie Indiana so I was off to the races with my letter.
My name is Stephanie and I am in the fifth grade at Highland Heights Elementary School. I play basketball and softball and used to do gymnastics before I was a cheerleader last year. I like to ride my bike and play in the woods behind my house after school. I have two brothers.
How are you? What is your name? Do you go to school? Where do you live?
I hope you like getting this letter.
I folded my letter firmly and rolled it as instructed. I tightly wound a rubber band around the outside and stood in the balloon fashioning line waiting my turn to see what color balloon I would get.
Red was good. I was hoping for blue, but I like red.
Later that day, we gassed up our balloons and tied strings on them and headed outside. I remember there was a light breeze that day, so as we stood there waiting for our instructions, the balloons bounced around off of each other as we huddled together in a bunch.
We were told to lift our arms high in the air and on the count of three we would all let go at the same time.
Ready? 1, 2, 3! Let Go!
And they were off! I watched as my balloon’s string slipped through my fingers as I released my grip. My balloon climbed higher and higher, and I worked hard to distinguish it from the other red balloons. I wandered around the corner of the building as the balloons began to scatter across the horizon. And within minutes the north winds blew quickly carrying the last balloon beyond the tree line.
A few days later, a little hit of my childhood innocence would be taken away as I learned that balloon releases, like the one my fifth grade class just did, were actually proving to be incredibly harmful for the environment and wild animals mistaking the balloons for food, were getting sick after eating them some even dying. And so now I was convinced that my balloon was bouncing around the forest floor somewhere a few miles away enticing Bambi or Thumper.
But even now as I stand here and tell you this story, I can feel that adrenaline, the conscience effort of letting go of that string. I guess I didn’t really have to let go. But from clinched fist to open palms, my balloon released into the world, no longer in my control.
This Sunday is the first Sunday in Lent. On Wednesday, we began the 40 day journey with an “Ash Wednesday” service. This is the service where we mark our foreheads with the sign of the cross with the reminder of “from dust you are and to dust you shall return.”
A reminder of our mortality.
A reminder of the one life we’ve been given.
An invitation to the life that exists between the dust.
Lent: the 40 days before Easter, the 40 days of journeying towards the eventual cross. The cross that we cannot by-pass together to Easter. But we journey with Jesus for 40 days to Jerusalem, where he will eventually be put on trial, wrongfully convicted and hung on that cross.
And the 40 days of Lent signify the 40 days and 40 nights of Noah on the Ark- the 40 years of the Israelite’s wandering in the desert, and the primary gospel text we heard read today of Jesus spending 40 days in the wilderness in temptation.
And before the Ash Wednesday service on Wednesday night, there were several of us sitting around discussing whether or not Lent or Ash Wednesday was something that we had grown up with in our home traditions, and most of us, having a Southern Baptist background, certainly did not experience Lent or Ash Wednesday as a part of our religious traditions.
Leave that stuff to the Catholics and Episcopalians, we said. And our church may be an oddity in Baptist circles, but the season of Lent is rich and invites us to encounter Christ in new and unexpected ways.
So for Lent, the most common practice is to give up something. As Christ demonstrates dependence on God for 40 days and 40 nights in the wilderness, we too mark this season by choosing a fast. Some fast from social media or meat while others fast from Chocolates, soda, fried food. And I don’t want to downplay those choices, because no choice to be intentional about Lent is a bad choice… however… it’s intriguing to me that we choose fasts that benefit our physique coming in swimsuit season… but I digress.
So in the conversation about fasting and fasts, I’m always moved by the passage in the book of Isaiah, chapter 58 where God has a conversation with the Israelites about fasting. The Israelites, have apparently demonstrated a pretty elaborate fast for God, lying in sackcloth and ashes. And they cry out, sort of peeved off at God and say, “God, why have we gone through the effort of fasting but you’ve not noticed?”
And God’s reply is, “You fast in the morning and then argue and fight all night. You hold your “Holy” fast all day while at the same time you exploit your day-laborers. Is that the fast you think I desire? Or is the fast I choose to loosen the chains of injustice, to set the oppressed free, to share your food with the hungry, to provide shelter and clothing to the lonely wanderer, [dare I translate] the undocumented immigrant among you.”
The Israelites had taken fasting and had taken so much time and energy on the logistics of their fast that forgot the point of their fast.
Isaiah demonstrates the proactive alignment with the values of God as the fast we should choose. The intentional taking something up along with our intentional letting go to align with Kingdom values.
Fasting is more than just not doing something for forty days, but it’s an intentional shifting of perspective to see the world that god would have, to live into gods dream for this world.
What do you need to let go of?
Throughout the season of Lent, we’ll spend our six Sundays looking encounters with Jesus through the gospel of John. And today you heard a familiar gospel story, told a little differently in the three gospels in which it appears. But the story goes that the disciples set out in a boat at night while for one reason or another Jesus stays back. And while they are at sea a storm comes and threatens the boat. And just as the storm rises, they see Jesus walking out on the water towards them. And they are terrified. And Jesus’ response, as it often is, is “do not be afraid.”
Do not be afraid.
Jesus calms the storm and gets them safely to the other side of the sea.
When the storms of life come, and they will, and we are in that boat and it’s all we can do to hold on, how more unlikely are we to be open to new possibilities. Are we not more likely to close in, shut out, throw walls up, and be afraid? To insulate ourselves with the familiar? More likely to attempt control of that which cannot be controlled instead of letting go and being open to that which we had deemed not possible.
Jesus says, “Do not be afraid”.
Just as Jesus invites his disciples to see things a little differently, and to encounter the Holy in a new way, they cling and they hold on and allow their fear to inform their perspective.
And our fear clinched fists are met with the invitation to let go.
But the practice of release of letting go is easier said than done. Speaking the words is easy.
But to really let go?
What freedom we can experience when we release ourselves from what we thought we needed to hold on to. And what possibilities lie before us when we are no longer bound.
And letting go won’t just happen to you. It is an intentional release that you have to do to let go.
And not only do we as individuals need release but our systems need release, our conventional wisdom needs release, our environment needs release, our economic system needs release, our whole world needs release.
It doesn’t just happen. It begins when one person intentionally chooses to turn a clinched fist into an open palm.
Months later after our balloon release, and what seemed like years to us 5th graders, one afternoon we were diligently working on a writing assignment of some sort, Ms. Painter broke the silence and concentration in the room to call me up to her desk.
She asked, “Do you remember when we released those balloons back in the fall? The ones with the letters in them?”
Eyes squinted I scanned my memory… balloons… letters? Ah yes! My brain went back to that forest floor Bambi just about to take a bite out of my deflated red balloon.
I nodded my head to Ms. Painter, “Yes. I remember.” And she said, “Well, it seems that out of all of those balloons released that day, your balloon was the only one to make it anywhere. You got a letter back.”
She handed me an envelope. Sure enough there was a letter addressed to Stephanie in Ms. Painter’s class at Highland Heights Elementary School. I felt a bit of relief that my balloon wasn’t killing Bambi and began imagining a new scenario: a well-manicured backyard, my little red balloon bobbing along the back fence.
I opened my letter and read the nice words from a woman in Indiana. She indeed did find my balloon in her back yard. And she wrote back. She didn’t have to. In fact, I wonder if I would take the time to return a child’s note (I hope I would). And my fifth grade perspective shifted a little bit that day, connecting me to a larger human family.
Out of all of the possible scenarios that I’d imagined or my little red balloon, this is not one of them. But the minute I let go of my balloon, it wasn’t up to me anymore. And what comes back when we let go is often more than we could have ever imagined.
So, in this season of letting go, I invite you to use these 40 days to be open palmed, ready to embrace the God who is all around you, inviting you to be open to the unknown, unpredictable, unplanned, and un-assumed possibilities. May your letting go inform your taking up.