Over in Africa, they have a very interesting way of catching monkeys. First, they secure a hollowed-out coconut to the end of a line and make a small hole in one end. Next, they put something small and tasty (e.g. some nuts) inside the coconut. Eventually, a monkey comes along and realizes that there’s a treat inside the coconut. It reaches inside to get the treat. Here’s the catch: the hole in the coconut is only big enough for the monkey’s hand to get through if it is empty. As long as the monkey is holding onto the treat, it can’t get out. If the monkey wanted to, it could let go and get away any time. However, they almost never do that. Instead, they hang on for dear life, even though it means their death.
Letting go is a hard thing to do. Just ask parents who have ever dropped a sons or daughters off at college. You hope that everything you’ve said and done over the past 18 years will be enough to guide them on their way, you draw out the goodbyes for as long as you can, but there’s no stopping that inevitable moment when you just let go, get back into the car, and drive away without them.
Our Buddhist neighbors have a lot to teach us Christians about the art of letting go. Their entire spiritual path is built around that idea. They start with the observation that life is full of suffering. We never suffer, so they say, for the reasons we think we do. We think we suffer because we lack something we want. We say things like this: I wish I had a better job. Why? So I can make more money. Why? So I can buy more expensive things. Why? So I can impress this other person. Why? So she or he will like me. And so on and so forth. Happiness, we think, is always just one step outside of our reach. We think it lies in some other job, object, or person. If I could just have that, then I would be happy.
“No,” the Buddha says, “you won’t be.” Real suffering doesn’t come from your lack of something, but from your desire for it. If you can learn to let go of that inner urge to always be reaching and grabbing for the next big thing, you’ll find real happiness. Along the way, you’ll also begin to find out who you really are inside. We tend to lose sight of that in our endless pursuit of the next big thing. We get lost in the rat race. As we learn to let go, we find ourselves again. The end result of this process is what Buddhists have always called Enlightenment. All of their rituals and meditation exercises are oriented toward this one goal. It’s all about letting go.
The art of letting go factors rather highly in this morning’s reading from the gospel according to Mark. Our story is part of a series of stories that we started talking about two weeks ago on Transfiguration Sunday. It began with the story of a blind man who Jesus had to heal twice. After the first time Jesus touched him, he was beginning to see, but everything was still blurry. After the second time, he could see clearly. We took this as a kind of metaphor for Peter, one of Jesus’ disciples, who was in the process of learning how to see (in a spiritual sense), but wasn’t quite seeing things clearly yet.
In the section just before today’s passage, Jesus asks Peter, “Who do you say that I am?”
Peter boldly replies, “You are the Messiah.”
Then Jesus begins to explain what it means to be the Messiah. He tells his disciples that the Messiah “must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.”
At this point, Peter steps in and pulls Jesus aside with some friendly advice. One might say that Peter saw Jesus as the hot new presidential candidate and himself as Jesus’ campaign manager. Peter’s idea of Jesus as the Messiah (or “Christ”) was very different from Jesus’ idea of himself. Peter thought the Messiah was supposed to be part political leader, part military revolutionary, and part spiritual guru: Che Guevara meets Barack Obama meets Dr. Phil. With God on their side, they were supposed to have a meteoric rise to fame and power.
But Jesus, it seemed, had a very different idea of what his life is supposed to be all about. Instead of fame and fortune, he talked about suffering and rejection. This really got under Peter’s skin, so he got up in Jesus’ face about it, but Jesus let him have it right back.
“Get behind me, Satan!” He said, “For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” In other words, there’s a bigger story going on than the one you see right in front of your face. Jesus knew how he fit into that bigger story because he knew who he was as God’s beloved Son. He would conquer the world, not through violence, but through the power of self-giving love. This was not an insight he could have had if he had been busy selling out to his culture’s idea of what a Messiah should be. But Peter, as it turns out, was having a hard time letting go of that idea. He was holding onto it so tight because he was absolutely convinced that the future security and prosperity of his country depended on it.
Don’t people still do that all the time? If you flip through the various noise news channels on any given day, you’ll find no shortage of people angrily shouting at each other because everyone is convinced that their idea holds the key to peace and plenty in the future. Whenever they stop to take a breather, the audience is instantly swamped with commercials for products that also claim to hold the secret to happiness.
We human beings have this crazy tendency to get so caught up in our own egos, ideas, products, and relationships that we forget who we really are inside. We are God’s beloved children. Our lives are part of a bigger story that has been going on since the beginning of time and will continue until its end. Jesus never forgot that truth. His faith in his identity as God’s beloved Son gave him the strength to resist the temptation to sell out to the popular ideology of his day. Suffering and rejection didn’t scare him one bit because he knew the great Love at the center of the universe that transcends fear and death.
Today, God is inviting you to enter into a greater awareness of that Love by letting go of your attachment to those things, people, or ideas that compete for your trust. Jesus says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?”
You are invited to participate in the art of letting go and trust in the Love that is stronger than death. Maybe the thing for you to let go of is an idea, thing, or person. Maybe it’s an old grudge or crush. Maybe it’s an unhealthy attachment to work or a cause you believe in. It can be good things too: like your attachment to your family, church, or system of beliefs. Many of these are wonderful things, but they can’t tell you who you are or give you lasting happiness. Whatever your attachment is, Jesus is inviting you to let it go and rediscover your true identity as God’s beloved child.
It’s not an easy path. Christians call it “the Way of the Cross” for a reason. You will have to face your own fear of mortality. You will have to sacrifice your sense of security. But the promise, as Jesus gives it, is that you can ultimately save your life by letting go of it. That’s what faith in the Resurrection is all about.
None of us does this perfectly. We’re all refusing to let go of something inside that keeps us from embracing who we really are and living the kind of full life that God intends for us. The good news is that our refusal to let go doesn’t change who we are as God’s beloved children; it only keeps us from recognizing the truth about ourselves.
As I was writing this sermon, I got a message about an old college buddy who passed away quite suddenly this weekend. Like all such announcements, it reminded me of the fragility of our biological existence. It also reminded me that the call to let go extends even to letting go of life itself. God asks a lot from us (everything, in fact). I compare it to doing a trust fall off the edge of the Grand Canyon, believing that we are held, as the apostle Paul says, by a reality that is higher, deeper, longer, and broader than we can possible imagine. It is the Love that passes knowledge and the peace surpassing understanding. When we are called upon to trust and let go, whether it’s letting go of some person, thing, or idea that we’re clinging to for happiness and security or letting go of life itself in our final moments, we journey forward in faith, trusting that we are not wandering into the darkness, but are being welcomed into the light. We are not enveloped by oblivion; we are embraced by eternity.