If you really want to know what’s central to a culture, look at the way it thinks about its margins. How do we imagine what’s “out there” on the borders? How do we talk about what we call “the frontier?” I know there is a lot of talk about borders in the United States just now. Perhaps you will thank me for not wanting to discuss that at this moment. I don’t want us to talk about right now, at least not just yet. I want us to think back to the golden age of Westerns.
In 1953, George Stevens produced and directed the movie Shane, a pitch-perfect—actually kind of corny, but that’s pitch-perfect in this case—a pitch-perfect story about a brave, manly, good-looking gunslinger who wanders into the home of some brave, God-fearing settlers and changes their lives for a while. The family he meets out in a jaw-droppingly beautiful valley in Wyoming is the Starrett family: Joe Starrett, his wife Marian, and their boy, Joey. All three are drawn to Shane immediately, and who wouldn’t be? He is improbably handsome, impeccably neat in what looks like a runway version of a fringed buckskin shirt and pants, and he carries a shiny, menacing gun but never takes it to town unnecessarily. With his improbably clean, wavy blond hair and his keen blue eyes, he is a real white American 1950s heartthrob. Joe Sr. loves him because he helps around the ranch in a grinning, manly way. Marian loves him for reasons she keeps to herself, though there is never a whiff of impropriety between them. Little Joey loves him because he is everything a real man should be. Nobody says so, but it’s clear that they all three wish Joe Sr. could at least look a little more like him, though Joe Sr. is a good man in his own less glamorous way.
Well, you guessed it: Shane ends up having to shoot Jack Palance and a number of other bad guys, and then he has to leave town, because a gunslinger has no place in the world of God-fearing homesteaders. And the scene of Shane’s leaving is pure Hollywood history. If you’ve seen the movie, and you should, you’ll remember this moment: Joey runs after Shane to witness the final gun battle, and when Shane finishes up with the shooting, he speaks kindly to Joey about having to go. “A man’s gotta be what he is,” he tells Joey. “You can’t break the mold.” And he asks Joey to return home to his mother and father and “grow up to be strong, and straight.” Perhaps that last word registers a bit differently for us now than it did for mainstream audiences in the fifties, but the message is clear. Joey will become a man, not like Shane—no one can be like Shane—but at least like his own good, solid, unglamorous father. And yet Joey seems unconvinced. As the music swells, Shane rides off into the hills, with Joey’s little voice echoing across the valley: “Shane! Shane, come back! Pa’s got things for you to do! And Mother wants you—I know she does!” It’s hilarious now, maybe, but it’s wonderfully poignant. When you see it, it stays with you.
We could name a bunch of other stories like this, stories about taking leave of civilization and riding off into the hills or lighting out for the territories. Think of John Wayne in The Searchers, or Huck Finn. There are stories for girls, too, even if they don’t involve the wild west and guns. Remember Jane Eyre heading out across the moors to defend her virtue from Mr. Rochester? No question: we love a good tale about leaving behind domestic life. There is an inescapable romance about being the one who has to go.
And in spite of my best efforts, when I hear Jesus tells us to leave everything and everyone behind and follow him, I get pictures of Shane in my head. I don’t think I’m the only one: somewhere in his writings Thomas Merton talks about how every man who goes into religious life imagines that when he is in the monastery there will be a woman left behind at the gates, pining for him. It’s the Shane story, all over again. We love a good tale about how we have to get away from civilization and family life in order to fulfill our destiny.
Here’s what I want to say about that: sometimes we do have to go, but Jesus isn’t in love with the picture of human longing and separation that Hollywood conjures up for us. Hollywood conjures that image up for us so we will have a big hole in our hearts, and we’ll fill it with popcorn, soda, and other movies. Hollywood teaches us that our character is our tragic destiny, that people can’t change or compromise, and that we have only ourselves to ride with as we head for the hills.
Don’t hear Jesus saying that. Jesus is different. He’s telling a different story. Jesus only wants us to go if that’s what we have to do in order to be able to love with our whole hearts. We may indeed have to take distance from mother or father, sister or brother, or indeed from husband or wife or child in order to be true to God’s love. But we aren’t heading for the hills or for some tragic, lonely, self-imposed exile. We step away at times because that’s what it might take for us to find each other in Christ. We step away to join community, to join the body of Christ, even in our solitude. We set limits with each other so that we can love each other more, not less. So that we can find the space we need to forgive and change. So that we can hold another in prayer and love, even if we need distance, allowing them to change and grow and find a way forward without us and our misguided attempts to correct them.
Leaving isn’t a romantic story. It isn’t picture-perfect. It doesn’t always work, if by “work” we mean solving a problem or changing someone else’s behavior. But it’s true that sometimes we have to do it. When that moment comes in our lives, and it usually will at least once, let us pray that we have the grace to know what we are doing. Leaving each other is important enough that Jesus warns us specifically not to set out unless we are really ready, not to go unless we really want to pay the price for going.
And even when we stay—maybe especially when we stay—let us take a kind of sacred leave of one another that allows the Holy Spirit to act in our lives without our misguided interference. Maybe you will stay in your marriage forever, but you won’t do so without letting go of your plans to change your partner and rearrange his or her priorities. You won’t stay without having to admit sometimes that you don’t know what’s best for the person you love most. You won’t stay without having to give her room to grow and change, and without needing that room yourself. You won’t change your children or your siblings, but in God’s holy love you may find a way of letting them live their own lives. You may stay in this parish forever, but not without letting go of your fellow Christians to some extent, letting them be who they are and learning to rejoice in what God is doing in them that isn’t according to your own plan.
The leave-taking we do as Christians is not in essence tragic, even when it involves pain and loss. The leave-taking we do when we have to, by the power of the Holy Spirit, is a letting go that sets us free to love with open hands and open hearts. It’s a love that sets us free from resentment and control. It’s a love that allows us to marvel, maybe, and maybe sometime way down the road, at the power of God to do for others what we can’t do ourselves. It’s a pure, costly, acceptance of God’s will, and it’s based in hope, not despair.
Taking up the cross and following Jesus, even when it’s really hard, is not tragic. It’s a sign of deep faith, hope, and love. Sometimes we leave because the resurrection is real in our lives and we are willing to act like we believe it. Sometimes letting go is the first sign of resurrection life.
It’s tempting to want to imagine what Shane is thinking to himself as he rides across the gorgeous valley toward the sublime mountains and Little Joey’s anxious calling begins to fade from his ears. It’s tempting to me to want to misquote him, as his fans so often do, to speak the words he never actually speaks in the film: “Sometimes a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.”
In our own scenes of leave-taking, when they absolutely have to come, let us replace Shane’s tragic words of rugged individualism with the words that our church, our community, our long tradition, teaches us to say this morning: Grant us, O Lord, to trust in you with all our hearts; for, as you always resist the proud who confide in their own strength, so you never forsake those who make their boast of your mercy; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Preached by Mother Nora Johnson
September 4, 2016
Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia