Back in the early 1970’s when I was called to a parish in the Diocese of Minnesota, my family and I moved into a home on the edge of a small lake. Half of our back yard swooped down at a 25% grade to the water. We brought with us from our Indiana farm property an industrial grade 17 horsepower riding mower to cut our considerably smaller new lawn. I loved that super-macho lawn mower. It somehow represented a durability and strength that all my previous, less noble riding mowers lacked.
I knew it was going to be a challenge to get that monster mower to cut our modest, deeply sloping back yard. Our oldest son, Andy who living with us, was now our designated lawn cutter. Before doing his first cut, I carefully instructed Andy to cut the back yard laterally, as cutting it up and down the hill could lead to catastrophic lake dunking.
Well it wasn’t long before we heard a howl from the back yard. I ran out to the back yard to a sight that is indelibly and forever inscribed in my memory. There was my expensive symbol of invincibility, buried seat deep (engine fully submerged) in water.
I went berserk.
I ran around waving my arms, yelling “Didn’t I warn you about this!? How could you have let this happen?” By this time our new neighbors were all out checking what kind of weird people had moved onto their block.
In the midst of the commotion Andy calmly looked me straight in the eyes and said, “Dad, for heaven’s sake, cool down and help me get me pull the tractor out!”
Total role reversal. Andy was now my mentor.
Before I could fully recover, Andy drove our Chevy into the back yard, hooked a chain to the mower and began pulling it out of the water. Our neighbors all began to cheer, and (I think) began to consider that these new noisy people were going to turn out to be OK. Miraculously, once out of the water, the tractor started with only two turns of the key.
That humiliating experience taught me a powerful lesson. In the midst of our life’s crises, when we get stuck in a sense of hopelessness, we need (as my son counselled) to calm down and let go of our perceived absolutes. My tractor had somehow become more important to me then it deserved to be. I had to let go of it, and hold on to the faith and confidence that my son showed me.
Faithful and fruitful living is about learning how and when to hold on, and how and when to let go.
Faithful living is like breathing: we inhale; and then we exhale. One follows the other. Holding on inevitably must lead to a letting go; and letting go, must lead to a holding on.
In this morning’s Gospel the man born blind gives us an example of letting go of his fear of the Pharisees, and holding on to his decision to be honest and forthright.
The blind man and his family are apparently loyal members of their local synagogue. He had no awareness of Jesus’ identity. He did not approach Jesus. Jesus approached him and offered to heal him from his blindness. The blind man gladly accepted Jesus offer and went to the pool of Siloam as instructed to wash the mud from his eyes. Imagine his surprise and delight, as he saw light and color for the first time in his life. He could see! When the Pharisees interrogated him about his healing, he praised his mysterious healer and called him a prophet. Eventually the Pharisees broaden their investigation to the blind man’s parents who plead the “Fifth.”
Resuming their inquisition, the Pharisees return to the blind man and accuse him of being a disciple of Jesus. Unafraid, the blind man holds his ground, and is consequently excommunicated from the synagogue.
Jesus invites us to follow the blind man’s example. On our journey through life; what we hold on to and what we let go of us is crucial to what we become.
The fully human life is like a two-step dance. We hold on to what at the time seems to be life-giving, and then, as we discover that what we were holding on to, is no longer life-giving, we let go and reach out for the next piece of reality to bet our life on. Because we are mortal and finite, that journey of holding on and letting go will never end, until we breath our last.
Those turning points; those times and places where we muster the courage to let go of the past and reach out to a new piece of future are usually found (like it was for Jesus) in the desert wildernesses of our lives and on the occasional and rare mountain top experiences of our lives. It is those moments that we are formed. It is in those places that we learn to strive to be neither more or less then we really are called to be.
This morning’s Epistle reinforces the “two-step dance” metaphor by instructing us to let go of the “works of darkness,” and hold on to an identity that God has given us to be “children of light.”
In today’s Old Testament lesson, David the young, unassuming shepherd decides to let go of his fear of Saul, and take hold of Samuel’s curious call for him to become Israel’s new anointed king.
On Easter Sunday, 1973, Kefa Sempangi, a Ugandan priest, prepared to make his way toward his pulpit to proclaim the Good News of the Resurrected Christ. His was not an easy task. Under the absolute dictatorship of Idi Amin, Uganda had become a place of terror.
Still fresh in Sempangi’s memory was the sight of soldiers cruelly beating a man, a face burned beyond recognition and the sound of boots crushing bones. Exhausted, he wondered what difference his sermon could make. He prayed for wisdom and strength and then delivered his sermon to a crowd of seven thousand people.
Afterward he made his way to the vestry, tired but joyful. Five men followed him into the small building and closed the door behind them. Sempangi turned around to find five rifles pointed at his face. He had never seen any of men before, but immediately recognized them as the secret police of the State Research Bureau – Idi Amin’s assassins. Their faces were full of hate and rage. “we’re going to kill you,” said the leader. “If you have something to say, say it before you die.”
Sempangi felt himself losing control. He thought of his wife and child and began to shake. Slowly, he accepted the reality of his limitation. Somehow he managed to speak and said, “I do not plead my own cause.”
“I am a dead man already. My life is dead and hidden in Christ. It is your lives that are in danger, you are dead in your sins.
I will pray to God that after you have killed me, He will spare you from eternal destruction.”
The leader looked at him curiously. Then he lowered his gun and ordered the others to do the same. “Will you pray for us now” the leader of the assassins asked.
Though fearing it was a trick, Sempangi asked them all to bow their heads and close their eyes. “Father in heaven,” he prayed, “you have forgiven men in the past, forgive these men also. Do not let them perish in their sins, but bring them unto yourself.”
Sempangi lifted his head, waiting for the men to pull their triggers. But then he noticed their faces. Gone was the hate and rage; and when the leader spoke again, it was without contempt.
“You have helped us,” he said, “and we will help you. We will speak to the rest of our company and they will leave you alone. Do not fear for your life. It is now in our hands; you will be protected.”
Kefa Sempangi knew the art of holding on to his faith while letting go of his mortality. He knew how to live the two step dance of holding on and letting go.
I invite you this Lent to answer two sets of questions…
First of all:
What is there in my life that is excess baggage?
What is no longer life-giving?
What is it that I need to let go of?
What is there in my life that I need to reach out and take a hold of?
What new thing is God calling me to do?