Emily Dickinson’s poem I felt a funeral in my brain examines the personal transformation that comes during a breakthrough. It is difficult to tell whether she is talking about physical death  –  one of her usual poetic images –  or about  the end of thinking in a particular way. It is clear that something is ending, and that she is liberated to let go of the old knowing and to begin anew.

Many of us run hot or cold on Emily Dickinson. Yet endings that mark beginnings are a theme in the scriptures. When one chapter of our life with God comes to an end, another begins. Often, prior to the new beginning, God demands that we let go of the old.

God promises the heritage of many offspring to Abram and Sarai, an elderly and childless couple in the Chaldean city of Ur (southern Iraq). Their son, their new beginning, will be born in another year, and God says that he will be the father to a multitude of nations. In order to fulfill their part of the Covenant, Abram and his wife had to change their names and travel to Canaan, with their entire household. This would have been a journey on foot of more than 800 miles: roughly like walking from Harrisburg to Tallahassee, Florida. Everything changes for them.

In order to attain the new beginning, we must let go of the old.

(Parenthetical thought: what is more challenging, to have a baby at 99, or a toddler at 101?)

Through Ishmael and Isaac, Abraham and Sarah became the ancestors of millions. All members of the Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Islam, and Christianity) share the same spiritual ancestry.

Jesus promises a new beginning through his own death. We have become so used to hearing about the death of Jesus that we forget how shocking Jesus’ words in today’s gospel passage must have been to his disciples. Even in Coronatide, consider how rarely our own leaders acknowledge their mortality or even their powerlessness. Yet the Messiah (whom Peter has identified as Jesus in the verses just before this passage) teaches his followers that he must be rejected, suffer, die, and rise again. The new life of resurrection comes through the cross. This is a new teaching, and it is unwelcome.

Conventional wisdom encourages us to be strong and successful. “Good parents” are supposed to teach their children these values. That was the expectation about the Messiah that Peter articulates  – in another gospel his words are Heaven forbid that rejection and death should befall you! In modern parlance, Peter is saying Don’t be so negative. This is not a good strategy. Jesus clearly rejects this thinking. Jesus has other priorities. The ways of God are not like our ways. Jesus came to serve, not to be served, and Jesus invites us to follow him and his ways. Deny your self interest and take up the cross. Allow the old way to die. Only then can we get to resurrection.

In order to attain the new beginning, we must let go of the old.

When we bear a burden willingly, we do that out of our love and our trust in transformation. (Parenting teens; getting sober; new initiative at work). There is no other motivation for a voluntary entry into suffering. Letting go necessitates both acknowledging what we used to have and passing through a sense of loss and grief, before we get to the resurrection and new life. Dickinson describes a crashing down. The journey to Canaan was arduous for Abraham and Sarah. The journey to the day of resurrection was not easy for Jesus and his disciples. Moving into a new place  – physically or spiritually  –  is never easy. It will not be easy for us. And it is going to happen.

In the context of parish life, much of what we have cherished was passing away before the pandemic (e.g., regular church attendance, daily prayers, the priority given to the group). In order to flourish in the future, we need to love Jesus Christ more than we have loved our habits. We need to trust that God will be with us in the transformation.  If any want to become my followers, let them take up their cross and follow me. Our new beginning will derive from the labor of a faithful, cross-focused community.

To make an end is to make a beginning.

We mark the end of one way of being church and the beginning of a new way.

We may or we may not be ready.

Christ himself will show us the way.