Letting Go of the Grail

(Sermon for Sunday, September 30, 2012 || Proper 21B || Mark 9:38-50 )

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (Paramount, 1989)

The floor of the ancient structure splits open, revealing a gaping chasm. Nazi sympathizer Elsa, the treacherous blonde bombshell, who earlier in the film skewers the heart of our hero Indiana Jones, falls in, only to be caught at the last second by Indy. But he has a dubious grip on her gloved hand and, over the next tenuous seconds, his grip starts slipping. If only she would reach up with her other hand. But no. The Holy Grail has also fallen into the chasm and is even now perched on a ledge mere inches from Elsa’s reach. “I can’t hold you,” shouts Indy. “Give me your other hand!”

“I can reach it,” she screams back, all the while groping for the cup. “Give me your other hand,” Indy shouts again. Another pulse-pounding moment flies by, punctuated by the an eerie silence in the glorious John Williams score. Elsa reaches a final time for the Grail. And then she’s gone. She falls, screaming as she goes, and vanishes into the mist that obscures the endlessness of the chasm.

Indy stares after her, but he has only a moment to grieve because the floor buckles again, and Indy finds himself thrown into the chasm. His father, Henry, slides across the floor just in time to catch Indy’s hand, but his grip is just as dubious as Indy’s had been moments before. Of course, the Grail is still perched on the ledge. Indy has longer arms than Elsa. “I can get it. I can almost reach it,” says Indy.

Then Henry, who has spent his entire life chasing the legend of the Grail, calls his son’s name: “Indiana,” he says, and then again with more gravity, as only Sean Connery can. “Indiana.” Indy looks up and their eyes lock. “Let it go,” says Henry, “Let it go.” Indy doesn’t give the Grail another look, but instead flings his arm up. Henry grasps both of Indy’s hands in a tight grip, and a moment later they are running from the ancient structure, soon to ride off into the sunset.

This scene from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade flawlessly illustrates what Jesus is trying to tell his disciples in today’s Gospel lesson. Now, every commentary I read about the passage made sure to note just how harsh Jesus sounds in all the talk about cutting off body parts and going to hell, so I’d bet that my reading of Jesus’ words a minute ago made us all a bit squeamish.

And for good reason. I think Jesus is going for far more than squeamish. His disciples have demonstrated time and again that they just can’t grasp the kind of life that Jesus is trying to teach them to live. As their utter thickness becomes more apparent, Jesus gropes for more and more outlandish imagery in an attempt to reach them.

Jesus has tried telling them point blank what’s going to happen. He has tried the object lesson of putting a child among them. He has even been transfigured into a dazzling being. And yet the disciples still try to dissuade Jesus from his chosen path, they try to figure out which of them is the best, and they try to stop someone not in their group from doing Jesus’ work. Finally, Jesus has had enough. “Listen up,” he says. “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire.”

Here’s another way to read this same verse: “If your hand causes you to separate yourself from God, then separate yourself from your hand instead. If your goal is to live the kind of abundant life that God yearns for you to live, then you would be better off having only one hand than to have two and wind up in the refuse dump, where they burn trash all day long.”

Jesus reiterates the same point using feet and eyes, and I imagine the disciples stand there dumbfounded and maybe a little sick to their stomachs. But perhaps Jesus’ point has finally hit home. There are so many things in our lives that we cling to, which impede us from living the kind of abundant life that God yearns for us to live. Therefore, we have a choice. We can choose the impediment, as Elsa does in the movie when she reaches and reaches for the Grail, only to fall to her death. Or we can cut ourselves off from the impediment, as Indiana Jones does when he ignores the Grail in favor his father’s strong grasp.

Jesus makes his point in a visceral, ugly way, but that seems to be the only way his disciples will hear him. The severed hand and foot and the torn out eye are parts of ourselves that seem integral, but you know what? Life can go on without them. Of course, Jesus only uses these bodily features to make his point. Physical body parts are not what cause us to separate ourselves from God. So the question is: what does? What about our choices or our actions or our way of looking at the world does separate us from God? What part of ourselves do we continually and erroneously reach for, even when our grip on God is failing?

I can’t answer these questions for you. I can only answer them for myself. And there are so many things that I should amputate from my life in order to participate more fully in my relationship with God. My anxiety is one – I know I should trust God enough to let go of my fears for the future and my stress for today, but I’m so used to feeling anxious that I tell myself I don’t know what would happen if I asked God finally to sever anxiety from my life. To tell you the truth, I do know what would happen. I’d find a more abundant, more peaceful life. So why do I keep reaching for the Grail of anxiety? Because I always have, and the inertial force of complacency is a strong foe.

Anxiety is one. Pride is another old standby. Apathy. The craving for security, which leads to chances never being taken. Perhaps the thing that Jesus calls you to amputate is on my list, or perhaps your list is full of other cancerous impediments that would best be excised like tumors rather than clung to like pieces of wreckage in a storm-tossed sea.

Jesus’ strong, visceral language in today’s passage is a wake-up call to the disciples and to us that the barriers we erect between us and God do nothing but hurt us and keep us from living the kind of abundant life that God yearns for all people to live. The good news is this. As we continue to reach for our favorite impediment, for our Grail perching so tantalizingly on the ledge just out of reach, God is clinging to our other hand, clinging with a grasp that will never slip. And God is whispering, “Let it go. Let it go.”

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