Letting New Things Take Root

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Harvest scene by Vincent Van Gogh

(This homily was preached for Mary Magdalene Apostle Catholic Community in San Diego, California. Readings can be accessed here.)

“Anyone who holds onto life just as it is destroys that life. But if you let it go, in the abandon of your love, you will have it for eternity.”

My homiletics professor likes to say that preachers always deliver the sermon that they need to hear themselves. I graduate from seminary in 8 weeks, and I will admit that I am trying to make these words my mantra.

After May I won’t be a student anymore. In fact, after spending most of my life in school, I might never be a student again. And I love school. After all these years, I’ve learned how to be pretty good at it. I love my friends there, the person I’ve become there.

There’s a very large part of me that doesn’t want to leave. That wants to stay right where I am. That doesn’t want to let this life go into the abandon of love.

But in the last few weeks I’ve been able to catch glimmers of what life after seminary might be: I’ve started making a list of art projects I want to work on when I won’t have to study anymore. I accepted a position in a residency program for hospital chaplains. And last week, I joined a group of 20 people for the first liturgy of St. Hildegard Catholic Community in Berkeley, an amazing collection of ordained and not ordained leaders who have already taught me so much about what it means to be church.

I’m still scared and sad to leave the life that I love, but I’m slowly starting to realize that I’ll have to let go of it in order to make room for this new life that I’m excited about. I’m starting to notice the ways that my old life is like a well-loved pair of shoes that used to fit me just right, but has lately has started feeling worn out and sore.

I’m not much of a farmer, but occasionally I try to grow vegetables in my backyard. And one of the things I’ve learned is that in order to care for vegetables, you have to be willing to let them go. Farmers need to care so deeply for their crops, but in order to do this well they can’t get too attached to any one particular plant. Because in the course of a season, they will have to watch that plant grow and age and die, so that new life can spring forth. No matter how much a farmer loves her crop, she has to be willing to clear the fields at the end of the season in order to plant new seeds. She has to let an individual grain of wheat die in order to let the new harvest take root.

This is a truth that Mary Magdalene Apostle Catholic Community has lived into in the 10 years since its founding. It’s a truth that you, members of this community, know in your bones: Each of you, by choosing to participate in an inclusive Catholic community — which is pastored by women and men together and welcomes all to the table— had to be willing to let some old things go, in order to let new things take root. You had to let go of old ways of doing church, old understandings of how things should be done, in order to discern what a new way of being Roman Catholic might look like.

And even though I’m sure that journey hasn’t been easy, I suspect that you’re still here because you’ve found new life here, life that may fit you better than your old life now would. You had to let old things die so that new things could take root.

Letting go of old life is hard. Sometimes it feels like death. And honestly, sometimes the new life that we are going into doesn’t look like it will be better than the life we left behind. We don’t always get to move on to better things. We lose our jobs. We end relationships. We watch loved ones die. We, eventually, die ourselves.

And yet, in the midst of that sadness, Jesus asks us to keep clearing the field, to say goodbye to the old plants that we loved, to plant new seeds.
It’s not a coincidence that right before his death Jesus reminds us of the importance of letting go. The importance of being willing to live into a new future, whatever that is.

I think he was trying to prepare the disciples, the people that loved him best, for what the next stage in their own lives would be. I can only imagine that for the disciples, the time they spent on earth with Jesus was the high point of their lives. It must have felt impossible to move past that.

But they couldn’t let themselves be trapped in the past. Because if they were too focused on missing their old lives they would never get around to building the church. If they were always reminiscing about the time before the crucifixion, they’d miss the resurrection. They had to let go of the life they had known, in order to embrace the life that was to come.

Change is painful. And it’s not always going to lead us to something that looks better than the thing that we lost. Jesus knows that letting go of an old life is hard. “But now I am troubled,” he says, “And what shall I say? ‘My God, save me from this hour?” No, he says. He can’t ask to be saved from change, because change is the very nature of creation. Death must always make way for life. We have to be willing to let go.

Instead, he says “my God, glorify your name!” Make your wondrous creation new again. Don’t leave us in a place of death, of loss, of missing what we once had. Give us the courage to follow you into new life.” And God promises, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” I will carry you through, just like I always have.

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