Sunday, January 11, 2009

Letting Go

I am the second of two daughters, so when the time came for me to be delivered to college, my parents had been through this dropping off ritual before. Although we didn’t talk about it out loud, there was no doubt in any of our minds that this was going to be hard for both my mom and me. Despite our “moments” as I was growing up, we were, we ARE close. My older, wiser sister armed me with some important advice about moving in day. “Just let her unpack your socks wherever she wants to unpack them. You can always switch the drawers around when she walks out the door.”

We had gotten me settled in with relative smooth sailing by the end of the day. Everything was right where Mom wanted it. My bed was made for the first, and probably LAST, time all year. Orientation activities were starting up on the lawn outside. It was time for the goodbye. We’re both criers so we knew it would messy, but we did well. They left. I went downstairs to meet my new best friends.

That night the college had an ice cream social for us on the picturesque quad. The freshman class serenaded the president with the alma mater we would sing like 80 more times before classes began the next week. There was a “luau” at one of the other dorms, but I didn’t stay too long. Even with my newfound freedom I was WAY TOO TIRED for a late night. I got back to the room around 11 p.m.

My campus phone already had a voicemail message. I dialed into the system and found a message for me from my very distraught mother. I could barely understand her words through the tears (she’ll kill me for telling this story), and immediately got worried that something had happened. Before finishing the message I called her cell phone.

She answered, and, hearing my voice, starting crying again. Her crying got me crying, and I thought I’d never find out what the problem was, but soon the story came out. Mom had forgotten her single most important task at the dropping off ritual. The socks were tucked away, the best bed was chosen before my roommate arrived, the comforter was in place, but Mom had forgotten to “take care” of me. She had forgotten to slip me a $20 bill.

Husband and I are YEARS away from the college drop-off scenario, YEARS, but I can already see how the letting go could very well be hardest part of raising our family.

The beginning of college. The beginning of the empty nest. The beginning of retirement. The beginning of a new relationship. The beginning of life in a new church. The beginning of life itself. All of these beginnings are also, in a sense, a time of letting go.

Mark, you may have noticed, doesn’t mess with Jesus’ birth when he begins to tell us the good news of Jesus Christ. He doesn’t tell about angels appearing to Mary or Joseph. He doesn’t make familial connections between John the Baptizer’s mom and Mary, the mother of Jesus. He doesn’t give us shepherds abiding in the fields or astrologers from the east following a star. There’s no pregnancy, no birth story, no visitors nor response. There’s no prologue of poetry, theology, and history. It’s just “This is the gospel,” there’s this guy John, and BOOM Jesus gets baptized.

Mark doesn’t mess around with anything else. And so, already in Mark’s beginning there’s a letting go. Apparently for Mark, whatever happened before that day wasn’t really all that important. Apparently for Mark, the meat of the gospel starts now – not with Jesus’ birth, not with his up-bringing, not with what happened before – but now, with his baptism. This is the start of the important part of Jesus’ life, for Mark’s telling of the gospel anyway, and, essentially, everything that happened before that is just let go.

He lets go of who he has been. He lets go of what he has been doing. He lets go of what has come before, and he moves forward as a new man, with a new life, on a new mission. He lets go of who he has been, and he lets God lead him where he will go.

The baptism we will celebrate today is not all that different. OK, it is different. While L played Jesus in our Christmas program a few weeks ago, we all know that L is NOT Jesus. And well, there’s about a 21 year age difference between Ln at his baptism today and Jesus at his baptism millennia ago. And I don’t anticipate any avian friends swooping through the sanctuary this morning.

But even with these differences, there are still a number of important similarities. L’s baptism, like Jesus’, is about letting go. It’s about being named and claimed as God’s child for God’s work. It’s about formally and spiritually being joined to the Body of Christ, the community of faith. It’s about celebrating publically the love and covenant of God with all generations. But it’s also about letting go.

In this case, an infant baptism, it’s a slightly different kind of letting go. L’s not quite ready to make that decision for himself yet, so instead it’s about his parents letting go. You didn’t think you’d have to do it so early did you? It’s not 18 years away, when he goes off to college or in other directions. It’s starting already. In baptism, as parents, we’re letting our child go, but we’re letting God hold on.

Baptism is not about tossing our children out into the world, simply giving them over hoping God or somebody holds on. We DO make promises, parents and the church, we do vow to lead our children and teach our children the way of God, nurturing them in God’s love. However, even in baptism, when we promise this care and attention, we are ultimately proclaiming to ourselves and the world that we that parents and we the church will have to let our baptized children go in the trustworthy hands of God.

And MAN, isn’t that hard? You know as well as I do, it’s a scary place our children will go someday. Letting go isn’t easy because most of us can remember what it was like to be let go of. Most of us can remember the time we could no longer live on the faith of our parents, the faith of others. Most of us can remember there was a time when we had to step out in our lives, step out on our faith, and see if the shaky ground would hold. There was a time when we had to come up out of the water that had been holding us and comforting us and cushioning us from the world around, and see what there is to be seen.

What is to be seen isn’t always easy, is it? Jesus left the waters of the Jordan, freshly baptized, freshly bathed in the love and voice of God, and IMMEDIATELY he was driven into the wilderness by the Spirit where be was tempted by Satan and lived in quarters a-little-too close for comfort with the wild beasts. Letting go is hard because we know what they will face when they walk away on their own. We know what kind of wilderness is out there. We know the temptations. We know the wild beasts and the trials they will face. We know that following God and living into the ministry that has been prepared for us is not always, or even very rarely, easy. We know that the ministry we are called to carry out isn’t always the carpentry we’ve been learning for the last 30 years. We know there are dangers and risks and struggle ahead.

We know because we have lived it. We know because we are living it. We know because there are times we don’t understand these things we think we’re supposed to believe. We know because there are times we don’t know what God wants us to do. We know because there are times we would rather crawl back under the water where sounds are muffled and pain is lessened and the world looks really sparkly and magical when we look up at it out there. It’s hard to let go because we know there are challenges to face, and the road of life and the way of discipleship aren’t always easy. It’s hard to let go because we’ve been there, and we are there.

But listen again to how Jesus steps out of the water, how he walks away from his baptism and into his God-given ministry.

“And the SPIRIT immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.”

In his baptism, Jesus is named. He doesn’t get a new name like Abram turning into Abraham, or Jacob becoming Israel, or Saul becoming Paul. But Jesus is named; he is identified so that he knows, and we know, who and whose he is, the beloved child of God. And, as they say, knowledge is power. For when he rises out of the water he doesn’t walk away on his own two feet, but immediately the Spirit is with him.
Immediately he is taken by the hand by God and led away into ministry. The first forty days are not easy. They are tumultuous and threatening and scary and they probably make him want to give up, questioning the entire life of faith he has lived, the baptism and divine proclamation he just experienced.

But whatever they are, they aren’t too much for God who holds him. God who speaks order out of chaos, God whose voice commands even the seas to be drawn back, God who separates light from dark, is the God who speaks in Jesus’ ear, our ears, the ears of our children, “You are my child, my beloved; with you I am well pleased.” God who creates out of nothing is the same God who will be with them, who has been with us, ALWAYS. This powerful and majestic and ordering God who holds the seas in the palm of the hand, will be holding on where we can’t any more.

Baptism is where Jesus finds out who he is, who loves him, and then is “let go” to do his ministry. But he isn’t let go on his own. He is let go with the Spirit upon him, God’s words in his ears, and the divine beings waiting on him. Remembering his baptism, celebrating Larson’s baptism, is a chance for us to remember to do the same.

Let go. Let go of what has come before. Let go of what has been gripping you. Let go of what you have been holding onto for security, for comfort, for stability. Let go of what has been hurting you, pulling you from God, dragging you down in the sloshy, dirty mud. Let go of the clenched fist grasp on your life and your future. Let go of your ideas and your purposes, and instead take hold of the hand of God. God will lead us forward from here. God will lead us into the ministry that is planned. God whispers in our ears divine love and affirmation, and will never leave our side.

In baptism we let go of our children and ourselves, placing them in the hands of God, in the hands of angels, into the Body of Christ. And in baptism God descends to the water and picks us right up. There is new life in the life of Christ. There is a new purpose, a new ministry and calling for each us. Dare to let go and follow the Spirit into the wilderness, only there can we see the angels that hold us and find the hope of our calling.

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