Thanks for the Memories. What Do You Expect?

Scott L. Barton
May 25, 2014
Acts 10:1-28

One hundred forty-nine years ago, a druggist in the village of Waterloo, New York, in the Finger Lakes region, mentioned to some friends that in addition to praising the living veterans of the Civil War, it seemed to him that honoring the dead was something that should and could be done by placing flowers on their graves.  A year later, on May 5, 1866, the village of Waterloo was decorated with flags at half-mast, and draped with evergreens and mourning black; groups in town marched to the beat of martial music to the three village cemeteries; and ceremonies were held and soldiers' graves decorated.  So began Memorial Day, which has expanded over the years to include not only the memories of soldiers killed in war, but of all our loved ones. We remember them. We put flowers on their graves.  And maybe we say a prayer of thanks.  It’s our memory of them that reminds us that we didn’t come into this life alone, and that others have fought battles for justice and wholeness, too, as well as against their own demons, and if they didn’t get it all right, they at least tried to teach us something about getting along, and about living in such a way as to give hope for the future.  When the U.S. Congress, on May 11, 1950, asked the President to issue a proclamation calling on the people of the United States to observe each Memorial Day as a day of prayer for permanent peace, they didn’t mean just words that someone might say at a public ceremony, but our remembering with gratitude the roots from which we come.  It’s the experience of people who have loved us, even to their deaths, that gives us a peace that’s hard to come by otherwise.  This weekend we remember them, and pray for peace for us all.
And so on this Memorial Day weekend, I thought it might be good to ask, how important is memory to this faith of ours? Last week I asked Rachael Pellitier to learn the answer to the first question in the 16th century Heidelberg Catechism, partly because I knew how much it meant to a member in my former congregation who at age 80 still remembers that and many more of those answers from her own confirmation as a teen.

“What is your only comfort in life and in death?”

“That I am not my own, but belong, body and soul, in life and in death, to my faithful savior Jesus Christ.”

Rachael may or may not remember that, but there are some obvious little things like it that most of us do know by heart. The Lord’s Prayer, for example.  I’ll bet almost everyone here knows it.  Or the Doxology. Things in our memory bank of faith that will never leave us and that still inform faith, whether the words themselves or maybe just as much the fact that people who loved us taught them to us. Let’s check this out.  I’ll bet we can sing the first verse of Jesus Loves Me, This I Know. I know you haven’t sung it in awhile, anyway. But Toni, if you will give us just an A, let’s see how many remember:

[Jesus loves me this I know…]

James Muilenberg, who taught Old Testament at Union Seminary in New York, looking for all the world like a full-bearded prophet of ancient Israel, once wrote, "Memory and expectation are the major elements in the mentality of prophetic Israel."  It seemed like a good pair of ideas for a Memorial weekend sermon, memory and expectation.

Memory, first.  A friend of mine who actually sat in Muilenberg’s class tells me that he used to say, “The one thing that saved the Hebrews repeatedly was their ability to remember some moment in their history, that when times were rough, they could fall back on, and it would undergird their faith and lift them beyond the moment and see them through to a better moment.”  The special moment in their history was usually the Exodus, when God freed them from slavery in Egypt, and had them pass through the waters of the sea to solid ground and a new life.  And then there was the wilderness that Moses led them through before they got to the Promised Land.

One fascinating thing is that in the Exodus story itself, the people are called on to remember the story that had gone before it – the one about creation. Remember how God is pictured as the one who brings order out of chaos in Genesis 1? It’s all very orderly; on the first day, God did this, and the second day, God did this, and so on; and God saw that it was good. Well, then in Exodus, you have all those plagues which are actually examples of chaos, nature run amok, with flies and frogs and gnats by the billions all over everything and, finally, darkness.  “Oh yeah,” you think when you hear the story; “that’s what it’s like without God, that’s what the first story told us, too.”  And of course, the pattern in Exodus is what Jesus followed – he passed through the waters of baptism, like some Red Sea, and was immediately driven into the wilderness to be tempted there, to struggle with what it meant to be chosen by God for a special purpose.  When people first heard Jesus’ story, they knew the stories of creation and exodus, too, and could make those connections.

And it’s been true at other times, too.  In spite of persecution and holocaust and ghettos and slavery and prejudice, people remembered the stories of creation and exodus and Passover, and baptism and wilderness, and the memory gave faith and hope.  The story saved them.  And I think it still has the power to save us from life’s despairs, save us from thinking we’re the first or only people who have ever gone through hardship, or from thinking that God couldn’t possibly care about whatever mess we happen to be in at the moment.  It’s interesting that after the plague of flies, Exodus says that the land was ruined.  It’s the same word in the flood story, where, before the flood, God notices that the earth is corrupt.  The Hebrew word for those English words has the sense of mess, ruined, rotten.  God had made something good and saw in grief that it had turned into a rotten mess.  So it’s happened before, and God made things right again.  We’re meant to remember that; we remember that God’s purpose in creation and liberation was overcoming the chaos, the mess people were in by setting faithful but unsettled peoples’ feet on dry ground.

It’s why the Psalms were written, too.  They told in poetic form, because poems are easier to remember and recite together, about the saving acts of God in the past.  Psalm 98, which we used in the call to worship, starts out reminding us of the victory of God at the Exodus:

“O sing to the Lord a new song,
for he has done marvelous things.
His right hand and his holy arm
have gotten him victory.”

The Psalms are full of this sort of thing, said by the community at worship hundreds of years after the events that are pictured.  Some of the 18th century conflict over whether anything other than the Psalms should be used in the church’s hymns was the fear of forgetting. People wouldn’t remember them.  But then new hymns come to be remembered. Do you know any other hymns by heart?  More, I’ll bet, than you think.  Try looking up from the book once in a while, and I’ll bet you’ll be surprised.  With repetition, we learn them, both the old hymns, which used to be new, since all hymns were once new, and those that are now new but won’t always be.  And today, we might say a prayer of thanks to God, for those who taught us.  “Thanks for the memory,” we can say.  Thanks for the memory of the words. Thanks for the memory of the acts of God. Thanks for the memory of the people who loved us enough to teach us the things that matter.  They keep our life from being in a mess.  Thanks for the memory.

I think I’ve told you that there’s a performance of the B Minor Mass by J. S. Bach next Sunday afternoon at Sweeney Hall over at Smith College. It’s been called the Mount Everest of choral music. I’ve been working on it since January with the Da Camera Singers, and it’s an astonishing piece.  In an interview that Krista Tippett in her “On Being” show replayed last month with the late Jarislav Pelican of Yale, Pelican talks about it. He was probably the greatest authority on creeds of the Christian church. And in the interview he was talking about the Nicene Creed. And he said, “My faith and my faith life, like that of everyone else, fluctuates.  There are ups and downs and hot spots and cold spots and boredom and ennui and all the rest can be there.  And so I'm not asked of a Sunday morning as of 9:20, what do you believe?  And then you sit down with a 3x5 index card and say, "Now, let's see.  What do I believe today?"  No, that's not what they're asking me.  They're asking me, "Are you a member of a community which now for millennium and a half has said, "We believe in one God."  And so that's what I affirm when I sing it, and I suddenly — I know that the Bach B Minor mass is the great setting of this.”

And then Jarislav Pelikan recalled his late friend and colleague Steven Gould, a distinguished paleontologist, who, despite his insisting that he wasn’t a believer, was once asked about communication with other planets and other worlds, and how should we try to reach people who don't know our language or anything else. And he said, 'We should play the Bach "B Minor Mass" and say, in as many languages as we can, "This is the best we have ever done, and we would like you to hear it, and we'd like to hear the best you have ever done." And so he would want broadcast systems blaring across our solar system and beyond it with the "B Minor Mass," including "Credo in unum Deum," which means, I believe in one God.

“I believe in one God, maker of heaven and earth, and in all things, visible and invisible.” It’s the kind of thing, when we remember it, that gives staying power we might not have otherwise, the kind of thing we need in the darkest hours of our lives.

But -- memory alone isn’t enough.  We can stay in our memories, and believe that the way we remember things is the way they should be now.  Do you know people like that, who are always talking about the way things used to be?  On the other hand, we can allow ourselves to believe that God still acts in new ways, too.  And do you know? -- there’s nothing new about my saying that.  Remember how the Psalmist says, “O sing to the Lord a new song”?  Even that old text gives permission to look outside the bounds of what you remember to what you might expect.

Do you remember that old song, Gimme that old time religion?

Gimme that old time religion,
Gimme that old time religion,
Gimme that old time religion,
It's good enough for me.

And then it goes on to say that it was good enough for Moses, and good for the Hebrew children, and good for Paul and Silas – and it’s good enough for me.

It’s a rousing old song, but it pretty much died out, and maybe it died out because it’s not true.  The old time religion, in fact, wasn’t good enough for Moses.  Moses had a passion for justice.  He killed an Egyptian once who was abusing a Hebrew slave and he had to flee for his life.  It was while he was in exile that he had an encounter with a God he came to know as Yahweh, which translated means something like “I am who I am,” or “I am (or I will be) what I will be,” or, “I cause to be what I cause to be.” And what Yahweh would cause to be was something new for the Hebrews.  They would be Yahweh’s special people, created to be a blessing to the world.  The old time religion wasn’t good enough for Moses, then, even though he resisted and at first found excuses for why he couldn’t lead his people to something new.  And the old time religion wasn’t good enough for the Hebrews, either. They wanted it to be. They didn’t like the risk of going into the wilderness to serve this Yahweh.  The old time religion of slavery and service to Pharaoh was much more appealing, really.  It may have been hard but at least they knew what to expect.  But finally, somehow, they went. And it was hard along the way, and they often wanted to turn back, back to where there was meat in the cooking pots (what the King James Version called ‘fleshpots’),  just as Moses often wanted to throw in the towel.  But the children of Israel pressed on, and Moses led, because the old time religion wasn’t good enough.
And then there was Paul and Silas.  At first, of course, the old time religion was good enough.  Paul, first named Saul, saw his job as a conservative Pharisee to persecute the growing movement of Jews who were following Jesus.  But God knocked him off his high horse because God wanted Paul to expect something new. And he became the greatest ambassador of the message of Jesus, even getting Peter and James, the leaders of the church in Jerusalem, to see the rightness of reaching out to the Gentiles. The story from Acts for today is one where Peter begins to have the scales fall from his own eyes. He has a dream about eating ritually unclean food.  And then, the soldiers from Cornelius, the Roman, come to ask him if he wouldn’t come and speak to Cornelius.  Well, convention held against that sort of traffic with non-Jews.  But Peter remembers the dream, and he begins to see that the old time religion isn’t good enough for him, either, because God is calling him to something new.

Thanks for the memories.  Memorial Day weekend, and our faith, both remind us of that.  It’s important to remember some things that will never change, that God has been with us in the past, that we are part of a people who have had God’s guiding hand, that people have loved us and that when they taught us Jesus Loves Me This I Know, they were talking about the people who were telling us that, too.  They were telling us that they loved us. Don’t forget your best memories of the faith, and don’t stop learning them and making them for each other.

But it’s just as important to know that the God who has been our help in ages past will be our hope for years to come, too.  A faith that gives thanks for the memories is also a faith that is free to expect God to be with us in new ways.  “I cause to be what I cause to be,” God says about who God is.  It’s a constant challenge to believe this.  Speaking personally, I would much rather keep things as I have gotten used to them, in church, at home, at work, in the community.  But God often seems to have other plans.  Even the certain finality of death was thwarted with the news about Jesus, the news that “He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.”  He wouldn’t be with them in the same way ever again, but he would still be with them.  And then he told them to go and make disciples of all nations.

What an astonishing thing to expect, that the ministry of love would have no bounds!  So may we expect the same thing, today, too; that in this place people will all know and learn a love that will sustain them, and make them, make all of us, in God’s new tomorrows, be a blessing to Hadley, and a blessing to the world.