Archive for the ‘arts’ Category

Pulling the weekly bulletin together is always an act of improvisation.

It rarely looks like it; after all, it is the planned order of worship that the congregation receives a few days later. And yet, there is always something that we hadn’t anticipated: a hymn we chose that’s unfamiliar; a special litany that needs to be included; a Scripture that doesn’t speak to the moment…There are always last minute adjustments. This past Sunday, however, stood apart.

Tim, our Music Director, was returning from a month-long sojourn in Europe. Our worship planning had gotten us through his absence, but we had not planned for his return. Tim and I agreed that the two of us would “do something”, and that was as concrete as it got.

Then it hit me: why not improvise? After all, I have been spending the better part of a year learning about the habits of improvisation; why not put some of that into practice? Using my own children as my willing improv guinea pigs in the days before (with different results each time), I hatched a process.*

Last Sunday, our Scripture was Psalm 146 from the Narrative Lectionary. During our time with children, I told them how the psalms were meant to be sung, and that Tim and I had nothing planned. And so we needed their help figuring out what it was we were going to sing.

I read the Psalm, asking them to say something like “I like that” when I read something that grabbed their attention. Then I told them we needed to figure out our key: I needed a letter between A and G and two numbers between 2 and 6. After one child asked if it needed to be a whole number, we got our suggestions: A, 3, and 5. That became the chord progression.

Tim and I began playing our three chords on piano and guitar; eventually, a melody emerged, which became a simple chorus:

I will sing my praise to God;

I will sing my praise to God;

I will sing my praise to God all my life.

The congregation soon joined in; I used the “liked” phrases to build verses. It took a while. The melody wandered on- and off-key, but we always returned to the chorus with full energy.

I have heard prettier and more interesting melodies. I have encountered more poetic lyrics. This was no Coltrane or Davis. And yet, there was something about this particular piece of music that “worked”. Along with everything else, the whole process invested the congregation in the anthem in a unique way. It wasn’t just Tim’s music or the choir’s music or my music; it was our music, our praise. Our shared creation had them “rooting” for the music in a new way.

We will definitely do this again.

One final note: our worship recording failed Sunday; so here’s my rough re-creation with guitar and voice:

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Use your voice to give God praise!

I will be spending next summer in Chicago. And I have you all to thank for that. Many of you know that Oglethorpe Presbyterian recently received a generous grant as part of the Lilly Endowment’s Pastoral Renewal Program. This grant will allow my family and me to spend the summer in Chicago, and will also cover any expenses related to pastoral, programmatic, and worship continuity here while I am away. It is a highly competitive program, and fewer than 100 congregations across the United States are chosen in any given year.

I mention all of this because of how it relates to our conversation today, about music and worship. The application we submitted to Lilly centered around creativity, and how engaging in creativity connects us to the One who is always creating and re-creating. In other words, creativity is a holy experience.

But you know that already, how the creative arts can speak to us in ways that words never can. When we see a painting, or hear a song, these things can take us to places that can be difficult to describe – and yet, they can be places of intimate sacredness.

It’s one of the reasons that some churches have come to be marked by the so-called “worship wars”. These are the battles over whether traditional or contemporary music ought to be used. Dividing lines are drawn, the world becomes very black and white, and the place for grays is squeezed out. I’m not surprised that this kind of thing happens, actually. If music speaks to us in sacred, non-verbal ways, no wonder we tend to get wrapped up in the kind of music that ends up in our worship services.

A few years ago, we surveyed our congregation about worship styles and music preferences. It was clear that we love our traditional music – that is, organ or piano accompaniment with traditional hymns. However, it was also clear that we see ourselves as a blended worship community. We mix things up with drums and guitars, with handbells and choirs, with gospel choruses and praise songs.

And when you think about it, that’s not too surprising, because we are blended community. Think about our communication styles for a moment. There are those of you who do not have a computer or email. And there are those of you who will tweet during this worship service. We know that about ourselves and about each other, and we appreciate it. So when it comes to music, we know one thing very clearly: we know that we are not the audience of our worship music. God is. As the preacher once replied to the member complaining about song selection, “It’s a good thing we weren’t singing to you.”

Music is a very subjective art. And while a particular song may not connect with me in a sacred way, it may be the most intimate, Godly moment for a fellow worshiper. Who am I to deny that experience?

All of this goes back to our overall conversation for the past few months, as we have looked back at the history of our congregation here at the corner of Lanier and Woodrow. And when we speak of music, there is far too much to say. It is clear to me that we are a congregation who has a high regard for music and its place in worship life, and that we value good music in all its variety. If you have been listening to our worship compilation CD, you know what I’m talking about; if not, you can find it streaming on our website.

That is all true. What is also true is that what our worship music looks and sounds like changes through the years, sometimes dramatically. And it has its life cycles. There are ups, and there are downs. Our choir knows this better than most, as we have met many times over the past few years to figure out what we can do to recruit more choir members. John Cox has personally asked every visitor, and maybe even some complete strangers, if they can sing!

Let me pause here and just make a quick commercial: participating in the choir is not like being the boatman on the River Styx. You don’t have to trick someone else into taking your oar in order to get off the boat. Come when you like to Sunday morning practice at 9:45. Sing once a month, twice a year, whatever works for you. They’re nice folks, too, for the most part.

OK. End of commercial.

Recently, I was talking to a colleague who works with a lot of churches across the country about our choir numbers, and her reply was, “I don’t know of any smaller church who has a growing choir program.” I’m not sure how reassuring that message is, kind of the churchy equivalent of “yeah, times are tough all over.” And yet, I don’t know of a church our size who is blessed with a thriving handbell choir like we are.

For that matter, I don’t know of any other church our size that creates the kind of music we do. Friends, we have been blessed with an amazingly talented and inspired music staff. They arrange familiar songs. They compose new ones. That kind of thing isn’t supposed to happen in a church our size! And that gift extends beyond Tim and his predecessors. It’s in the congregation! We – you – have written songs we have sung in worship.

Forgive me for patting us on the back a little bit here, but this is the unique gift of music at Oglethorpe Presbyterian: we create our own joyful noise. And nothing will speak more directly to our heart or to the heart of God than the words of our own mouth!

The psalmist encourages us not just to worship the Lord, but to do enter into God’s presence with singing! I don’t think it’s any accident that it is called a joyful noise, because not all of us are blessed with the gift of pitch. Even so, on into our reading from Colossians, the faithful are taught not just to teach one another with words, but to sing psalms, hymns, songs of gratitude and thanksgiving. Music, our music, has always been a vehicle to reach the divine.

I think there’s a fitting tale from history in all of this. 500 years ago, a young monk named Martin Luther staked his life on the idea that the people who worship should be able to understand the words of Scripture. Even if it wasn’t an original thought, his radical idea to translate the Bible into the language people spoke was earth shattering. It changed the balance of power and interpretation in European churches. He then took this idea of vernacular worship even further, composing songs in native languages. Most galling of all, he took familiar tunes – beer hall anthems, folks songs – and wrote sacred words to them as a tool to teaching the people how to give praise to God.

I’m convinced that this is the stream of tradition and history into which Oglethorpe Presbyterian steps: the church using its own voice to give God praise. Tim Hsu has composed numerous pieces in his two plus years with us, and arranged even more.  The refrains we sing at Advent and Lent are his, as is one of my favorite pieces, a setting of the Lord’s Prayer in Mandarin. We have used Ted Kloss’ song “Take Flight” in worship as well, and I know he has others we have yet to hear. Our summer music has featured original compositions of simple prayers, even an “Alleluia” set to a song by the band Arcade Fire. You all have even tolerated some of my original music, which is the truest sign of your grace and patience! And when I head off to Chicago in June, one of the things I will get to do is take a songwriting class. I have always loved music, but have never had the courage to write it. It is you, Oglethorpe Presbyterian, who have inspired me to do so.

All of this leads me to my question for you today: How can you use your voice to give God praise? What a fitting topic for our stewardship season, as we look for ways that our gifts of time and ability can fulfill God’s desires and serve God’s purposes! For some of you, there’s a very linear, literal connection here. Maybe you sing and would give the choir your time. Perhaps you play an instrument and would do so as part of our worship. Maybe you have a song you’ve written that speaks to you of God that you would risk sharing with us, or a poem that cries out to be set to music, or a melody that’s seeking words.

For many more of you, that voice you give may not be one of music at all, but you would know that better. Maybe you have an aesthetic eye, or a listening ear, or a patient heart, or a generous presence, or a joyful spirit. Perhaps you have keen insights or understand numbers or people in ways that few of us can, giving wisdom to our ministries and vision to our lives. Maybe you have had a financial windfall that can help serve God’s purposes. Or perhaps you simply have the luxury of time, a precious commodity in Brookhaven in 2013, time you can share with those who find it difficult to leave home, or time you can spend in prayer on behalf of God’s kingdom.

The fact is that each one of us has some God-given voice that can be raised up to make that joyful noise! That’s what it means to be one of God’s children, what it means to be part of Christ’s church. What is it? And how can we be a part of helping you connect those dots?

My prayer today is that this gives you a sense of focus to your daily prayer, that God would stir up within you the divine spark that God alone has placed there.


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From the mind of a four year old:

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You can click on the arrows below to listen to live versions of the music played at the U2Charist Easter Vigil service. There are more links at the church website. You can also subscribe to the OPC podcast, where these live versions can also be downloaded.

The band (AKA U6):
Tim Kromer – vocals
Rachel McDowell – vocals, keyboards
Seth Hammonds – guitars
Marthame Sanders – rhythm guitar, backing vocals
Ted Kloss – bass
John Gunter – drums

MLK/Beautiful Day (Procession)
lyrics – iTunes download (MLK)
lyrics – iTunes download (Beautiful Day)

Grace (Old Testament readings)
lyrics – iTunes download

Yahweh (Old Testament readings)
lyrics – iTunes download

I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (Transformation of the Sanctuary)
lyrics – iTunes download

Sunday Bloody Sunday (Our Hope)
lyrics – iTunes download

Magnificent (Our Remembrance)
lyrics – iTunes download

“40” (God’s Invitation)
lyrics – iTunes download

With or Without You/Where the Streets Have No Name (Our Communion)
lyrics – iTunes download (With or Without You)
lyrics – iTunes download (Where the Streets Have No Name)

I Will Follow (God’s Blessing)
lyrics – iTunes download

Pride (In the Name of Love) (God’s Sending)
lyrics – iTunes download

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Genesis 1:1-2:4
Exodus 14:10-31;15:2-21
Isaiah 55:1-11
Ezekiel 37:1-14
Romans 6:1-11
Matthew 28:1-10

The U2Charist, as I understand it, began as a practice in several Episcopalian churches. Recognizing that the band U2 often used images of Scripture in their lyrics and a public engagement to making the world a better place, they put together creative worship services. Apparently, the band is fine with that happening and doesn’t worry about their copyrighted lyrics as long as any collection taken up goes to support the United Nation’s Millennium Development Goals and that awareness be brought to those same goals.

So: what are the Millennium Development Goals and why should we care? In 2001, these were targets set to be reached by 2015. 192 nations, including our own, are signatories to the goals, which are:

  • Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger
  • Achieve universal primary education
  • Promote gender equality and empower women
  • Reduce child mortality
  • Improve maternal health
  • Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases
  • Ensure environmental sustainability
  • Develop a global partnership for development

So…how are we doing? Well, there is some good news, but not much. “Extreme poverty” is defined as those living on less than a $1 a day. And while that’s down to 15%, that’s still over a billion people. Meanwhile, some of the progress that has been made has been set back by severe natural disasters, including the Tsunami in Indonesia and the earthquake in Haiti. And then with the worldwide economic collapse of the last few years on top of that, it seems unlikely that these goals will be met in time, which makes me wonder if they will ever be met.

This isn’t the way it was supposed to be. Aren’t things supposed to get better? Isn’t life supposed to be an upward progression? We’re living in the 21st century! We’re way past 1984 and 2001. We’ve had a man on the moon and we’ve built the internet. Aren’t we supposed to be moving forward constantly on the horizon to new and improved?

Remember jetpacks? Where are the jetpacks? We were promised jetpacks!

The future was supposed to be full of this stuff. Flying cars, robot housekeepers, and a jetpack in ever garage. What happened to bigger, better, faster, stronger? Each generation was supposed to do better than the previous one. A bigger house, a better salary, an earlier retirement, a life made easier by technology.

I think the heart of the problem is one of faith. To put it more clearly, we have confused optimism with hope. So when a crisis hits, we lose our trust in optimism. But because of our confusion, we think that we have actually lost faith. But if it was in optimism, then maybe we never had it to begin with…

How long will we have to talk about these things? How long will we have to push ideas like the Millennium Development Goals because the world simply isn’t getting better? And what about those who truly suffer? How long, they must be asking, is life going to be more like death? How many of them are living their own Good Fridays, nailed to their own crosses, wondering where God is and why God has forsaken them?

There’s a reason, I think, that so many of U2’s songs have these themes of yearning. “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for”…”How long must we sing this song?” How long, indeed?

And yet, there remains throughout this thread of hope in their songs as well. Optimism assumes things will always get better. Pessimism assumes they’ll get worse. Hope believes that God has not abandoned creation; that Christ is there suffering with those who suffer and offering another way to those who cause that suffering. There is hope.

Bono, talking about their lyrics, had this to say about faith:

“We’ve found different ways of expressing [faith], and recognized the power of the media to manipulate such signs. Maybe we just have to sort of draw our fish in the sand. It’s there for people who are interested. It shouldn’t be there for people who aren’t.”    U2 at the End of the World

He’s referencing the practice of the early Christian community who latched onto the fish as their symbol. There were so many stories of Jesus and fish on which to draw: the multiplication miracles, the fishing scenes on the Sea of Galilee. It was less obvious than the cross as a sign of Christian faith at a time when Christians were being persecuted. And the Greek word for fish was an acronym for “Jesus Christ, son of God, savior.”

Early Christians, not knowing if the person they were meeting was a Christian, could draw an arc in the sand. If the second person made it into a fish, then they both knew that they were safe.

The evidence of U2’s faith is there in their music. You might have to look carefully at times, but it’s there. The same is true of optimism vs. hope. If we’re looking for optimism, we are certain to be disappointed. But if we’re looking for that arc drawn in the sand, we’ll see it and know that there is hope all around us.

Tonight we have followed in the footsteps of millennia of Christians who have moved from the despair of crucifixion to the hope of resurrection. Our Scriptures are reasons for hope, songs that have been sung far too long, perhaps, but glimpses of hope if our eyes are open to them. And above all, we are on this side of the resurrection. Optimism was buried in that tomb. And when the stone was rolled away, optimism imagined that it had all been a dream, like the Wizard of Oz. Hope knows that Jesus suffered horribly and yet is still able to recognize the angel when it comes.

If we are followers of hope, we should run to show the others, not just tell them, but show them, what we saw. We should make the resurrection as real as possible so that there is no question about hope. We should live it in our lives.

How? Well, the plug might be an obvious one, but the Presbyterian Hunger Program, for whom we took up an offering at our service, is one way. They have an impressive resource you can download for free called Just Eating. It’s a curriculum and study guide on food. I highly recommend it. I promise you that you won’t like or agree with everything in it, but if that was our goal, would we ever open the Bible?

One story in particular leapt out at me. It is of Belo Horizonte, Brazil, a city of 2.5 million people. In 1993, they decided to make food a right of every citizen. The best parallel in the U.S. would be public education – it’s available to all. They decided to do that with food. And they have done just that through a variety of programs, including more farmer’s markets (which means better food in more places), competitive open markets in poorer neighborhoods, creative restaurants which are cheap and draw clientele from all economic levels, three free meals a day to Preschoolers, and so on. My assumption would be that this would simply mean more free handouts, but here’s the stunning truth: it costs the city exactly 1% of their budget.

What will you do? How will you feed the world? OPC has its own commitments to making the world a better place, to building the kingdom of God, including our support for Habitat for Humanity, Interfaith Outreach Home, and the Druid Hills Night Shelter. And now, in the coming months, our Food Pantry, after 40 years, will be joining forces with other churches in the area through the Suthers Center in Chamblee. What would it mean, for example, if we worked to commit ourselves to food access in all of our communities? Could we do that for 1% of our budgets?

Ultimately, it’s a question you’ve got to answer for yourself. It takes prayer, of course, and listening – the two go hand in hand. And it also means keeping your eyes open for those arcs in the sand, wondering where exactly it is that they are pointing. And when you see them, go. And don’t walk. Run. Run!


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From our Ash Wednesday service for Haiti. The band and choir play the U2 song to close our worship service. That’s me on minimalist-effect-laden guitar. Lyrics can be found here.

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From our Ash Wednesday service for Haiti. The band sings the U2 song, accompanied by the choir, as Meghan Brown Saavedra offers prayers for Haiti and the world. I got to play some guitar; thanks for letting me borrow the gear, Seth! Lyrics to the song can be found here.

God of mercy, we pray for all people around the world, who climb mountains, risk arrest and gather furtively with your people in order to give praise and glory to you. We give thanks for the people of Haiti, who in the midst of destruction, famine, and despair, have flocked to their churches, gathered with their communities and broken out in spontaneous prayer and song on the streets. We also thank you for the generous international response to the victims in Haiti. In the midst of this tragedy, we have seen glimpses of our interconnectedness. We have felt compassion and grief, pride and humility, utter sadness and despair for people we have never met, but with whom we are mysteriously but undeniably connected.

God of justice, we pray for those in Haiti, those in more distant countries and those in our very own neighborhoods who appear to have nothing: no place to lay their heads, no food to fill their stomachs, no medicine to cure their ills, no family to anchor them. We also pray for those who seem to have everything, but whose illusions of self-sufficiency isolate them from God and neighbor. We deserve your condemnation; but instead of rejection, you sent your Son into the world to love us, forgive us, and save us, not just giving us our life back, but giving us new life in Jesus Christ. O God, we ask that you show your presence and your love in mighty and visible ways in the country of Haiti. We boldly ask for miracles of healing, generosity, forgiveness, hope and transformation.

God of wisdom, let all of our actions be guided by your will and your love. Give us the desire to be instruments of your justice and peace. We know from our personal experiences and through the witness of Scripture that you are our true refuge and our strength, a very present and real help in trouble. We desperately want to be fearless; give us the courage to speak these words; to claim them, believe them, and act as through our very life depends on them. When we feel as though we have not found what we are looking for, help us remember that you have already found us, that you reach our to us, offering grace and reconciliation, new and abundant life, and the promise of your kingdom come.

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You can click on the arrows below to listen to live versions of the music played at the U2Charist service. Keep in mind that they were not recorded professionally, so they have a bootleg-ish quality to them. There. You’ve been warned.

There are more links at the church website, including my reflection on the evening’s theme. You can also subscribe to the OPC podcast, where the live versions can be downloaded.

The band (AKA U6):
Tim Kromer – vocals
Rachel McDowell – vocals, keyboards
Seth Hammonds – guitars
Marthame Sanders – rhythm guitar, backing vocals
Ted Kloss – bass
John Gunter – drums

All Because of You (God’s welcome)
lyricsiTunes download

lyricsiTunes download

New Year’s Day
lyricsiTunes download

Drowning Man (Our confession)
lyricsiTunes download

Grace (God’s forgiveness)
lyricsiTunes download

lyricsiTunes download

I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (Our prayers)
lyricsiTunes download

“40” (God’s table)
lyricsiTunes download

With or Without You & Yahweh
lyricsiTunes download (With or Without You)
lyricsiTunes download (Yahweh)

I Will Follow
lyricsiTunes download

Beautiful Day (God’s blessing)
lyricsiTunes download

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Watching movies is one of my favorite activities. Today I had the rare pleasure of getting to watch two (usually that only happens when I’m dog-sick and stuck in bed). They provided a bizarre counterpoint for each other.

The first was the upcoming adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Now, the last one out of the gates on this was No Country for Old Men, what I consider to be an almost pitch-perfect movie. Add to that Viggo Mortensen and Robert Duvall, two of my favorite actors, and I was pumped. The kicker: free passes for pastors, followed by a theological discussion of the movie led by a “noted theologian.” Sold!

The movie was bleak – I expected that. And that was hard to watch. But it just wasn’t that good. The Coen Brothers nailed No Country‘s pacing with the painfully drawn-out vista shots and the almost wordless dialogue. Here, there was some good cinematography, but it felt like they were trying to get through it too fast. I know it’s unfair to compare relatively new-comer directors to the Coen Brothers, but this really didn’t live up to the challenge at all. For a free movie, though, intriguing.

The noted theologian was Reg Grant, a professor at Dallas Theological Seminary. It was not that long ago that places like Dallas would have urged faithful Christians to run the other direction from such movies, so I am encouraged to see the evangelical mainstream willing to engage secular culture, not deny it out of hand. But what followed in discussion was frustrating. The film was full of Biblical and philosophical allusions, much like No Country. However, the discussion seemed to be hell-bent (pardon the expression) on shoe-horning the film into a Christian allegory. The relationship of the Father and the Son, the pronouncement that the Son is “the one,” the only man in the film named is “Eli,” sparse conversations about God and angels, all of that adds up to a lot of fodder for conversation. But to somehow assume that McCarthy’s nihilistic worldview could be bent into a crypto-Catholic “hope in Christ” morality tale? Not quite…

I was reminded of the Ralph Wood article comparing the theologies of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, entitled Lewis & Tolkien in Tension. In it, Wood describes how Lewis’ literature has no purpose if the allegorical interpretation is not there. In other words, if you don’t get that Aslan is Jesus, then The Chronicles of Narnia aren’t going to be of much use. Tolkien, on the other hand, seemed to prefer the uniqueness of Christ and therefore refused to have any Christ-figure in his masterworks. The themes of Scripture, however, are there: betrayal, trust, faith, transcendence, temptation, humility, etc. Allegorical, no. Rich, yes.

It was reading Wood’s article that helped me understand the deep flaw I’ve never been able to articulate with dispensational readings of Revelation. A vision of the future? Yes. One in which the Whore of Babylon/seven seals/four horses means a specific person/entity/nation/enemy? Probably not.

And yet, that’s exactly what this audience was trying to do with The Road, find the Christ-figure and how to use this as a preaching tool. One audience member went so far as to say that the end offers the possibility of hope in Christ and the “new heaven and new earth.” First of all, there’s a big difference between hope and optimism; hope is a lot more than “glass half full.” You can have a bleak future and still have eschatological and soteriological hope. And second, folks, if the future looks anything like McCarthy’s vision, then there is no cause for hopetimism.

Enough about the film I didn’t enjoy. The second film was with guys who went on our OPC Men’s Retreat in October. We watched Into the Wild, the story of Chris McCandless, the Emory student whose misanthropy causes him to abandon all for the solitude of an Alaskan winter only to discover the truth that “Happiness is real only when shared.”

Sean Penn’s directorial eye was exactly what The Road needed. The drawn out shots of mountains, whether bleak or beautiful, were well-executed. And there was enough fodder for theological/philosophical discussion, albeit in non-allegorical terms: loneliness, woundedness, community, limitation, success, dependence, independence, forgiveness, enlightenment, you name it. And if that weren’t enough, there’s far more religious conversation that actually occurs within the movie. From vague discussions about God to prominent quotes from Tolstoy (himself an intriguing Christian writer), McCandless’ own search seems to have these eternal questions in mind. And the way Penn shapes the narrative only highlights these ideas.

And so for now, the balcony is closed. We’ll see you next week at the movies.

(having watched the preview again, did we get a truncated version today? ‘cuz half of the scenes in the preview were not in what we saw)

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Hebrews 4:12-16
Mark 10:17-31

Over the past few weeks and over the next few weeks we are following the travels of Jesus through the Holy Land as he makes his way from the Galilee toward Jerusalem. Today we are in the region across the Jordan River. The idea as we make these travels together is that perhaps by following Jesus in his footsteps that we ourselves might be able to get back on track in our own lives. We’ve touched on many aspects of this idea, of getting back on track, of finding our footing again with the way that life knocks us off balance. Today we’re looking at the idea of knowing when to let go.

I want to suggest the possibility that there are things to which we cling, that we hold to desperately, that get in our way of following Jesus.

In the film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Harrison Ford is on his quest for the Holy Grail.

It has been about twenty years since the film came out, but there are still a lot of scenes that say something about to the life of faith.

***spoiler alert*** (it has been 20 years…)

In the final scene in the movie, they are riding through the desert looking for the Holy Grail, the cup Jesus shared at the Last Supper with the disciples. Indiana Jones is the one that picks it out because he knows that its this simple one made by a carpenter, not the fancy gold one his Nazi competitors think it is. Once they have discovered the Grail, then the earth begins to shake and begins to break and give way. As the Grail falls off a ledge, Elsa, who has been his love interest up to this point and then turns out to be a Nazi collaborator, she wants the Grail and falls off the ledge reaching for it, and it’s just out of her grasp. Indiana Jones is holding onto her hand and she’s reaching and reaching until he can’t hold on anymore and finally she slips and falls into the abyss. Immediately after that scene, Indiana Jones tries the same thing. But his father manages to pull him back from the brink and lets go of the Grail so that he might live. For Elsa it was her refusal to let go that was her demise. For Indiana Jones, it was his ability to let go that saved his life.

In the story of the rich young ruler, the rule kneels before Jesus. He submits before Jesus, calling him a “Good Teacher.” Jesus rebukes him, because “No one is good but God.” The man learns from that and addresses him appropriately the next time. But he didn’t learn quite enough. Jesus tells him, “Here’s what you need to do in order to inherit eternal life, to enter the kingdom of God, to participate in the desires of God and the way that God wants the world to be, which is on its way. You have to follow the Commandments. You know what they are. There’s the ten in the famous list from Mount Sinai. There are the more than 600 throughout the Hebrew Bible.”

And the man says, “I got those. Check. I’ve been doing that since I was little kid. I’ve got that straight.”

At which point Jesus says, “There’s one thing you lack: sell everything that you own, give it to the poor, and then come and follow me.” And we read that the man went away grieved, dejected, downhearted, because he had many possessions.

Is there a broader lesson for all of us in this? I want to be careful, because there’s something contextual about it all; Jesus is speaking to this one man for whom his wealth is a barrier to following Jesus. But I also don’t want let us off the hook too easy. This leads us to ask ourselves, “Is it possible that what we possess, the riches that we might have, get in our way of following Jesus?” It’s in this story that Jesus gives that incredible, impossible, ridiculous example of the camel going through the eye of a needle. You may have heard in Sunday School that it wasn’t really a camel and it’s not really the eye of a needle, but rather a gate in Jerusalem that was called the “eye of the needle,” and the only way to get through that gate was to kneel down; so it’s not really about this impossibility of physics, of a dromedary getting through the eye of a needle; instead, it’s more about humility: submitting before God and entering God’s presence. Unfortunately, that isn’t true. There is no such gate in Jerusalem. We’re not let off that easy.

So then, what does that word “rich” really mean? What does it mean to be rich, to possess enough to be called “rich”? The disciples wrestle with this. They recognize the frank reality of it, responding, “Nobody can enter heaven. If you raise the bar that high, then nobody can get in.” I did some number checking this morning. My salary is a matter of public record. If you’re curious, you can go look it up. The congregation has to vote on it every year. You know what it is that I make. I wanted to compare my salary with what it means to be rich. In the United States, my salary is above average. It is right about in the middle. Is that rich? Is that middle class? That might be a matter of debate. Globally, however, I’m in the top 0.78%. I better practice my needle threading.

I think the truth is that a lot of us are like that rich young man. We may have submitted to Jesus, as he did, kneeling before him. We may have joined a church, or been baptized, or have taken on a leadership role, or have gone into professional ministry. But the question is: “Are we really following Jesus?” Have we really taken up our cross and followed him?”

What is the one thing that we lack? what is that one thing that Jesus would name in us that would send us away grieving? What is it that you hold to that keeps you from holding onto God? It could be wealth. It could be something else. Maybe you have an anger or a resentment about a situation in your life that you just can’t let go of. You want to hold onto it. Maybe there’s an old wound that just won’t heal that keeps you from following Jesus. Maybe it’s a drive for success, all things at all costs. Maybe you ask yourself a series of “What ifs” and If onlys”, all these questions, that act like a rocking chair: they give us something to do, but they don’t get us anywhere. Maybe you know right now that are not following Jesus fully, maybe you know that you are holding on to something, but you’re going to get around to it later when the time is right and things calm down.

I was struck by something else in this text and the idea in our theme this morning of “Letting Go.” Elizabeth and I were a fortune enough to get to go to the U2 concert this past Tuesday. Since then, we’ve been listening all week to our U2 albums and have been reconnecting with the meaning of the songs. There are incredible spiritual and Biblical themes in Bono’s lyrics. There’s one song that I’ve heard before, but didn’t really recognize it until this week. It’s from the album War, and it’s called “Drowning Man.” Bono sings:

“Take my hand. You know I’ll be there. I’ll cross the sky for your love. These winds and tides won’t drag you away. Hold on and hold on tightly. Hold on and don’t let go of my love.”

At first glance, it’s simply a love song. Somebody is drowning and someone is reaching out. But as the lyrics unfold and Bono begins to quote Scripture,

“Rise up with wings like eagles. You’ll run and won’t grow weary”,

we know that the love song is from God to someone who feels like they’re drowning.

Does that feel like it describes you? Are you drowning? Do you even know it? Or do you in fact know it but can’t admit it? Is there something in your moral center that is bugging you that you just can’t bring yourself to look at? Is there something that you are holding onto that makes it more and more difficult for God to take hold of your hand? Let go. Let go. And let God take hold. Let go so that Christ can embrace you fully. Let go so the Spirit can lift you up with wings like eagles! Is there one thing that you lack? Is there one thing that sends you away from following Jesus again and again, grieving your own inability to unclench your fist? Maybe you can’t do it. Maybe it’s impossible. But with God, all things are possible.

Lord God, there are times that we hold our hands together so tightly that not even light can get in. We cling desperately to the things that we think make for life. Help us to remember that it is you hold us in the palm of your hand; it is your light which heals us and strengthens us. Help us to let go of possessions, ideas, pains that keep us from opening our hand to you. We pray all of this in the name of Christ our Lord. Amen.

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