Earlier last week, I was chatting with Sarah—my friend and neighbor—who is otherwise known as The Rev. Sarah Robbins Cole. She told me she was working on her sermon for Easter Sunday the theme was letting go. I suppose the idea is there cannot be rebirth without letting go of those things that tie us to the past.
"Any thoughts?" she inquired.
An apt subject as April 30th approaches— the 42nd anniversary of the end of the Vietnam! This was also a chance to plug "Escape from Saigon - a Novel," so I mentioned how "letting go" is a theme running throughout the story. The struggle with letting go is voiced by Billy Freda, the high school friend, who has to let go of the moment he scored the winning point in the championship game, US Ambassador Graham Martin who cannot let go of South Vietnam that had become intertwined with his identity, the reporters who devoted their youth to covering the war and have to find a new life elsewhere, and of course, the two Vietnam veterans who wrote the book—myself and Michael Morris, who saw combat in the Vietnam War as a young soldier in 1967.
Here is what The Rev. Sarah Robbins-Cole, Rector of St. Michael's Episcopal Church in Holliston, Massachusetts told her congregation about letting go on Easter Sunday Morning 2017.
Marie Kondo of the book The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing is perhaps one of the best known books that has come our way from the field of decluttering and home organization. If you have not read the book, the basic premise of the book is to get rid of things that do not spark joy. Marie Kondo recommends taking out every item you own, in a particular sequence, and touching each item, and if it does not spark joy – out it goes. She has other helpful hints such as not buying more specialized storage containers to hold yet more clutter, and folding your clothes, for example your shirts, in a way that finding a shirt is as easy as flicking through record albums – because they all are standing on end.
The desire to hold on and to accumulate is as old as time and man. Perhaps it’s because we falsely equate accumulation with security. If I just hang on to clothes, household items, food, photos, books, I will never be in want. Who knows? I might need one of these things later.
Or we mistakenly believe that if we throw things away or recycle them – somehow we won’t remember or value what that item represented.
Or sometimes what is harder is we hold on to emotions and memories - something that has hurt us deeply. Maybe you are holding onto a grudge, or an imaginary contract with someone (that is, unless they do x, I will not forgive, move on, or be nice, etc.,). And somehow letting go would be to admit defeat.
When people have asked me this week what I am preaching on this week – and I tell them that I am working on a sermon about letting go – it has been interesting to hear people’s response.
When I told my neighbor Dick Pirozzolo, who has just published the book, Escape from Saigon - a Novel this year, he said, “funny you should say that”. He is himself a Vietnam Vet, but he said in his research and during his book tour, while he has encountered many veterans who live full and rich lives, he also said that he has met a fair number of veterans who live and breathe their days in Vietnam every day—even though the end of this month will mark the 42nd anniversary of the ending of that war. “After all,” Dick commented, “you are 19 years old, your friends are all back home working in a shoe store, and you are in a strange country, surrounded by people speaking a foreign language, and you are getting shot at.”
But he said, the problem is that what happens to some of us is that we get stuck at 19. Our entire identity is formed around being a Vietnam Veteran and that does not allow a new identity to form. Our lives are dedicated to remembering that time – from the stories we share to the social media platforms we belong to and contribute to.
Another friend of mine, who works with students, said to me, “that is such an important message” because she finds that some of her students cling to ideas, ideologies, and identities in ways that are unhealthy because they perpetuate their sense of being powerless victims in a hostile world.
Or another friend talked about a woman she knew who was the team mom of a volleyball team – and she did everything – she organized uniforms, social events, coaches gifts, the booster club – but at the end of her son’s junior year, at the end of season party, when he was not elected captain by his peers for the following year, she was absolutely devastated. She refused to talk to anyone for the rest of the party and her son never played volleyball again – so attached was she to the idea of her son being captain.
I am sure we all have examples from our own lives - elderly parents who cling to the idea of unrealistic independence, or children who can’t seem to quite realize they have actually reached adulthood, a parent who cannot let go of their adult children, etc., etc.
The subject of letting go is not just a superficial self-help issue. They are deep spiritual concerns – which come to the very heart of our gospel lesson for this morning. Jesus tells Mary – do not hold on to me. Literally – do not cling to me as I am now. I am yet to ascend to the Father. Jesus is telling her that she must not cling to him because his time on earth is done. And why that is important is that first of all, after the crucifixion they can’t just go back to the way things were – and secondly, the ascension is necessary so that the work of Jesus will no longer be constrained to his little corner of Israel – but will spread to the four corners of the earth.
And it’s not just the idea of the physically present Jesus she is going to have to let go of. If she wants to share in that resurrected life of new life and rebirth – she is going to have to let go of everything that is holding her back – she may have to let go of her anger at the Romans for crucifying Jesus, she may have to have to let go of her feelings of resentment at the disciples for handing Jesus over, betraying Jesus, and falling asleep while Jesus was praying when he very clearly asked them to stay awake. She may have to let go of her bitterness toward a world that allows an innocent man to die. She may have to let go of her wrath toward her own people for their maleficent fickleness – who on Palm Sunday lauded Jesus as King – and then jeered Jesus just a few days later when he really needed them.
But let me be clear - there is a big difference between letting go and forgetting. Letting go – means having a willingness to move forward, to not be stuck in the muck and mire of past wrongs. Forgetting is pretty near impossible, and forgiving can be a very long process indeed.
What we celebrate today is the resurrection. We celebrate that when one thing ends – and when we let go and give it to God, and trust that God will do something good and meaningful and life-giving to that of which we let go – we too will live the resurrected life.
God invites us to new life each and every moment of our lives – not to cling to the past – but to be engaged in our lives right here and right now. It is just as Joseph Campbell, the preeminent expert in comparative mythology and religion who wrote: We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned, so as to accept the life that is waiting for us.
Along with being coauthor of "Escape from Saigon - a Novel" set during the final days of America's "first television war," Dick Pirozzolo is managing director of Pirozzolo Company Public Relations, an international communication firm based in Boston, Massachusetts.