a sermon by the Rev. J. Mark Worth
The job of an interim minister, Mark says, is to fall in love with the congregation — and then, when it is time to say goodbye, say goodbye. Yet there will be things to hold on to as well as things to let go of. This will be Mark’s final sermon and farewell at our church.
- From Dylan Thomas (1914-1953), “Death Shall Have No Dominion.” Though they go mad they shall be sane, Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again; Though lovers be lost love shall not; And death shall have no dominion.
- From Mark 4:3-9
A sower went out to sow. As he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil… and when the sun rose, it was scorched; and since it had no root, it withered away. Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. Other seed fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirty and sixty hundredfold. If you have ears, let them hear.
My Father was born on the Cornish coast of southwestern England in 1906. His hometown was a little fishing village named Mousehole. It’s spelled Mousehole, but the natives pronounce it “Mawzel.” Imagine that time: Mousehole had no automobiles, no flush toilets, and back then there was not yet a radio station anywhere in the world! When my Dad was a little boy, eight years old, he found a sixpence, and being a good boy, took it home to his mother. She took the sixpence to the blacksmith, and used the money to buy a hoop. You may have seen such hoops in old pictures of children playing. They could be made of iron, steel, or wood, and children would push their hoops along with a metal bar or wooden stick, and it would spin down the lane in front of them. They would race or play other games with their hoops. It’s called “hoop rolling” or “hoop trundling.” (One picture of this on the internet said, “If you remember this you’re probably already dead.”)
Dad was very pleased with his new iron hoop, and he took it down to the harbour to show the other boys. After a while, one of the boys said, “Let’s go across the harbour in this rowboat to my uncle’s fishing boat.” So the boys piled in, and my dad took his new hoop. Dad was the last one off the rowboat. And as he tried to step onto the larger fishing boat, the rowboat slipped away and my dad fell in!
He was still holding on to his new present, the iron hoop. It was heavy, and it was pulling him down to the bottom of the harbour. He wanted to swim back up to the top, but he couldn’t let go of that hoop. He loved his new hoop, but it was drowning him.
Logic says that he should have let go, but he didn’t. He was lucky. Someone yelled, “Man overboard!” Dad was proud to learn, later, that they had called “Man overboard!” for a little boy like him. An older boy jumped in the water and pulled him out, still with the hoop in his hand, and carried him home, wet, to his mother.
Holding on and letting go ~
It’s often hard to know when to let go and when to hold on. We are faced with the problem time and again in our lives. We must let go of a child when he or she grows up. When a loved one dies, we have to learn how to let go. We hold on to the memories and the love, but we have to let go of his or her physical presence – we have no choice. We have to let go of old ways of being in the world, and learn new ways. We may have to let go of a tempting but dangerous situation, let go of a losing proposition, let go of our youth, let go of anger, let go of the past and face the future. We may want to let go of negative behaviors we learned in childhood – learning in the meantime to forgive our parents for their inadequacies, and to forgive ourselves for ours.
When cast into the depths, in order to survive we must let go of things that will not save us. We need to let go of anything that holds us back of pulls us down, anything that has the potential to drown us. Letting go not only releases us; it can also transform us.
Parables of letting go ~
I’ve mentioned from time to time that one of the central teachings of Buddhism is that everything is impermanent. One of the most famous Buddhist parables is a story about accepting impermanence – and letting go. A woman came to the Buddha and said, “My child has died, but I love her so much, I can’t let her go. You are a great man. People say that you can make miracles happen. Will you bring my daughter back to life?” The Buddha said, “I will do as you ask if you will perform one small task. Go and find a home in the city where there has never been a death, and bring me a mustard seed from that home.” So the woman went from door to door, searching for a mustard seed from a home where the family had never lost someone to death. And everywhere she went, as she spoke with the people, she heard stories of death and loss and grief. Finally she came to realize that loss and sorrow are inevitable, that she had to accept her daughter’s death. She returned to the Buddha with new wisdom. She said, “Now I understand that every living thing must die.”
She was able to let go of her child – not forget, but let go – and live on. Jesus told the parable of the sower: some of the seed fell on rocky ground or was eaten by birds, but some of the seed fell on good ground, sprouted, and gave back grain a hundredfold.
When this story is read in Christian churches it is generally given a specific interpretation about people who hear the word about the Kingdom of God. Maybe that’s what Jesus meant, because right after the parable the gospel writer has Jesus explain it in that way. But that explanation may have been placed in the text by the gospel writer himself, giving his own interpretation of what Jesus meant.
The Reverend Richard Trudeau suggests another possible meaning. He says the meaning of the parable is, “Do what you can, then let it go.” Right there, within the Judeo-Christian tradition, he says, is the principal message of the Bhagavad Gita, the core text of Hinduism. There are many parallels between Christianity and the other great religions of the world. But to hear that message – do what you can, do your best, then let go – we have to liberate Jesus from the box in which Christianity has sometimes confined him.
Songwriter Don Schlitz wrote a song for Country singer Kenny Rogers:
“Now ev’ry gambler knows that the secret to survivin’ Is knowin’ what to throw away and knowing what to keep. ‘Cause ev’ry hand’s a winner and ev’ry hand’s a loser, And the best that you can hope for is to die in your sleep. You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em,
know when to walk away, know when to run. You never count your money when you’re sittin’ at the table. There’ll be time enough for countin’ when the dealin’s done.”
What do we need to let go of, what to walk away from? And what do we need to hold on to? So often we find that we can no longer follow paths that have been comfortable for us. We have to leave something behind. Yet we know that there are things we must hold on to as well. I’m moving into an unknown place – retirement. It’s time for me to look at my way of being in the world, learn what to let go of, and what to hold on to. When I go back to my home in Maine, I won’t be the minister. I’ll have to be in the world in a new way.
A changing role ~
And so the time has come for me to let go of my ministry at this church. I’ve done my best here. My job has been to sow some seeds, and then let it go. As an interim minister, I knew I wasn’t going to stay. And in fact, we are all interims in this world. We do our best, we sow some seeds, and then we are gone.
These two interim years have rushed by so quickly. We have accomplished much together. We searched for, and found, a terrific new Director of Religious Education, Daniel Payne. Social Justice took a more prominent role during the past two years, led by the new Social Justice Ministries Council. The music program has been a great joy. The church has a new and better web site, committees are working well, pledging has increased, and the budget has been passed. Our active membership has increased. Most importantly, the Ministerial Search Committee did great work, and you have voted overwhelmingly to call Rev. Jill Cowie to be your next settled minister. I believe you made an excellent choice. We have done the work we set out to do.
It is time for me to move on, and time for you to have a new beginning. The Reverend Mark Morrison-Reed writes, “We do ministry knowing that some day the relationship will end. The challenge is to be there despite this… Mary Oliver’s poem ‘In Blackwater Woods’ describes what is required: ‘To live in this world you must be able to do three things: to love what is mortal, to hold it against your bones knowing your own life depends on it, and, when the time comes to let it go, to let it go.’ We love what is mortal. For each individual ministry is mortal. It has its life span – a beginning and an end. Knowing this we still invest our essence in the community. We treat it not as a job, but as our lives. Then ‘when the time comes to let it go’ we have to let it go.” I look forward to the new challenges retirement will bring. At the same time, I hate to say goodbye. Mickey and I have made so many friends. By necessity, I have to step away from this congregation so that your new ministry can flourish. Our ministerial code of ethics says that, in order to make room for the new minister, the previous minister should not return for two years. That is going to be very hard, but I came here with a task to do, and now it is done, and it’s time to say goodbye. I have to step away. I have to let go.
And so here is my message to you: Goodbye. I love you. Thank you. Forgive me for my quirks and any mistakes I’ve made. And if for any reason any of you feel that you have somehow been less than perfect, I forgive you.
I love you all. Thank you so much for the honor of letting me minister to this congregation, and for the times when you have ministered to me. I have to go. You have treated me, and Mickey, so well. You are wonderful people, a wonderful congregation, and I will miss you so very much. We’ve done well together. All things come to an end. You will have a great future, I know it. Goodbye.
Well, it’s time to finish my father’s story, for there is more to the story. In his seventies my father had a combination of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases. They are very difficult illnesses, and his illnesses took his mind from him. It was such a hard time for him and for our whole family. He died when he was seventy-five.
Dylan Thomas writes, Though they go mad they shall be sane, Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again; Though lovers be lost love shall not; And death shall have no dominion.
In 1978, when my dad’s illness was still at an early stage, my Mom and Dad and older sister and I took a trip to England together, to Cornwall, to the village of Mousehole. My sister and I were adults. The four of us were there together in Mousehole for nearly a month. One day Dad and I took a walk to Paul Parish Church to see if we could look up old family records. Along the way Dad became confused at a fork in the road. He couldn’t remember which road to take. Luckily a man came down the lane toward us, and we asked him directions. After he showed us the right road to Paul Church, my Dad told him, “I was born here. I lived here before the First World War.” They talked, and the other man said, “You aren’t Larry Worth are you?” And my father said, “Larry’s my older brother. I’m Freddy Worth.”
I had never heard my father call himself “Freddy” before. He was an adult. He had always been Fred. But he was home, and he was little Freddy again.
And then an amazing thing happened! The other man said, “Why – then you’re the little boy I pulled out of the harbour beneath the ‘Our Maggie!’”
I had heard the story many, many times but had never heard the name of the boat before! This was the man who had saved my father from drowning! He was the one who knew to hold on and not let go. He had saved a life. And made our family possible.
And that last trip, before my father was sick, is something I can hold on to. And the paradox is, it helped me let go as Dad became terminally ill.
May we learn when it is time to let go of old patterns and roles, however comfortable they may feel, that are no longer right for the situations we face. Let us also know to hold on to one another when we need help. May we reach out to and for others, seeking meaning not in our own suffering but in our shared experience of the human condition. May we hold on to our memories of one another; hold on to our convictions, and to our faith in the future. In our journey of letting go and holding on, may we accept and forgive ourselves, and one another.