September 2, 2018/Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost/Richard E. Holmer
First Lesson: Deuteronomy 4:1-2,6-9/Second Reading: James 1:17-27/Gospel: Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
It’s remarkable how memories can remain vivid and alive, despite the passage of time. We carry our history with us – and we are able to recollect people and places and experiences from years ago. Back in July, I spent a long weekend on a golf outing with five friends I’ve known since our days in Junior High. Over those days we resurrected many stories of teachers, coaches, classmates, and girlfriends – along with shared adventures and calamities that still bring laughter, no matter how many times the stories have been shared. No doubt some of those stories have been embellished a bit over the years – but the cast of characters is unchanging, and the main thread of the stories is consistent.
My friend, Bruce, and I told once again of our first venture into the dating world. We agreed it would be safer to go on a double date. We worked together on a script to use on that essential and momentous phone call: to boldly go where we had not gone before and actually ask a girl for a date. One of us had to go first, so we flipped a coin – and I lost. I recall quite clearly the sweaty palms and the butterflies in my gut before placing that call. It was a minor miracle that Sue Carlson agreed to go on a date.
We decided it would be best to go to a long movie – so we wouldn’t have to do much talking. Dr. Zhivago was an ideal choice, with a running time of 193 minutes! We weren’t old enough to drive, so we got Bruce’s older brother, Jeff, to be our chauffeur. (I can picture that Country Squire station wagon.) What we didn’t anticipate was how intriguing Jeff proved to be to our dates. He had just come home from his freshman year at Dartmouth. He was handsome and charismatic – and had lots of good stories. He was cool in a way Bruce and I were not! Let’s just say that in the car, coming and going, most of the conversation was between Jeff and our dates.
It’s amazing how one can go years without seeing a friend – and then pick right up as if you just saw them last week. That’s the power of shared memory. It so happened that our golf outing took place in the town where my father grew up and graduated from high school: Manistee, Michigan. We spent some time walking around the town. I’m sure a lot has changed – but the streets are the same and the Manistee River still runs right through the business district and out to Lake Michigan. We stopped by the church were my grandfather served as pastor. And we went to see a movie in the recently refurbished theater that was built back in the thirties when my dad was still around.
Walking around Manistee I felt a connection to a history that predates my lifetime. I crossed the same streets, the same river that my father and grandfather crossed. My eyes took in places and sights that they had also observed. As I was hanging out with my high school friends, I was also spending time where my father spent his high school days. It was a sweet and evocative experience.
William Faulkner was on to a profound reality when he wrote: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” The past keeps bubbling up into the present. To a great extent our lives are shaped and constituted by our memories. Even when we are not consciously remembering something, we are living out of our accumulated history To completely lose your memory is to lose your identity – you would lose yourself.
In his book, The Living Reminder, Henri Nouwen reflects on the nature of memory:
“When we speak about guiding memories we do not necessarily refer to a conscious remembering, an explicit reflection on events in the past. In fact, most of our memories guide us in a pre-reflective way. They have become flesh and blood in us. Our memories of trust, love, acceptance, forgiveness, confidence, and hope enter so deeply into our being that indeed we become our memories. The fact that we are alive, that our hearts beat, our blood flows, our lungs breathe is a living memory of all the good care that came our way. It is primarily such incarnate, pulsating memories that carry us through our dark moments and give us hope These memories might be dormant during our normal day-to-day living, but in time of crisis they often reveal their great revitalizing power.”
Nouwen notes that “our hope is built on our memories, for without memories there are no expectations.”
The Church is a community of memory. When we gather for worship, we don’t start from scratch each week. We draw on our collective memory. We are reminded of things we already know:
– The God we have come to know in Jesus Christ
– Who we are as God’s people
– Why we need to be here
– What God has done – and what God has promised to do.
We repeat words we know by heart in the liturgy and prayers. We listen to the same readings that have been read for centuries. We share the meal Jesus told us to partake in his memory. Together we recall: who we are and whose we are, where we’ve come from and where we’re going. Our purpose to love God with all our heart, and to love our neighbors as ourselves.
We don’t come to hear something novel and completely unprecedented. We come to be reminded of what truly matters. To reconnect our story with God’s story. For a moment, consider what we share here that happens nowhere else.
In one sense the entire book of Deuteronomy is a call to remember. The Israelites are on the brink of entering the Promised Land. Forty years have passed since they were freed from slavery in Egypt. A new generation has grown up. Most who participated in crossing the Red Sea are no longer alive. Moses impresses on all the people the necessity of remembering God and remembering their own history and the commandments God has given them to live by. This same call goes out to each and every succeeding generation of God’s people (including us): remember where you came from, remember who brought you to this promised land, remember who you are.
Moses issues this warning in our First Reading: “Take care and watch yourselves closely, so as neither to forget the things that your eyes have seen nor to let them slip from your mind all the days of your life; make them known to your children and your children’s children.”
We live in a culture that has very little sense of history. People today are fixated on what’s happening now – and what’s coming next – but often are uninterested and unaware of what happened before. With our smart phone technology we have instant access to information. We can know what’s happening anywhere in the world – as it’s happening. And we can also read all the shallow tweets and comments about what’s happening. Psychologists describe a prevailing syndrome among many these days: FOMO – fear of missing out. People get glued to their technology so as not to miss the next big thing (which quickly becomes irrelevant old news.)
One way memories are preserved is through keeping and observing traditions. Family traditions: like how they celebrate Christmas and birthdays, having a treasured vacation spot, or recipes handed down through the generations serve to shape and maintain the family identity. The Christian Church is rich in tradition:
– the rhythm of the church calendar, moving through seasons and festival celebrations
– the order of our worship service
– hymns sung by many generations
– bible study
– Sunday School and confirmation
– potluck dinners and picnics, breaking bread together
However, problems arise when we become more devoted to a tradition than we are to what the tradition is intended to preserve. “We’ve always done it this way” is not a good motto or mission statement for the church.
Lutheran theologian Janoslav Pelikan drew an important distinction between tradition and what he called “traditionalism.” “Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. And, I suppose I should add, it is traditionalism that gives tradition such a bad name.” Traditionalism is all about keeping a tradition for its own sake. This is the criticism that Jesus levelled at the Pharisees, who were upset that Jesus’ disciples ate without washing their hands. The Pharisees complained to Jesus: “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” In reply Jesus quotes from the prophet Isaiah: “This people honors me with their lips. But their hearts are far from me, in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.” And then Jesus adds: “You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”
The purpose of keeping any religious tradition is to draw us closer to God: to help us remember God and what God intends for our lives. Jesus made the same point when the Pharisees criticized him for healing a man on the Sabbath. God gave the Sabbath as a day of rest, so technically healing was doing work – and thus violating the commandment. Jesus defends his actions by saying: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.
In order to function as a community of memory, the church is not called to perpetually do the same thing in the same way from generation to generation. Instead we are to use the wonderful gift of memory to recall who God is for us, what God has promised to us – and to preserve the living faith which has been passed along to us. We do not aim to preserve traditions for their own sake. Instead we employ whatever resources are available that help us to remember the goodness and grace of our God. For along with the gift of memory, we also have the capacity to forget – to lose sight of what matters most of all.
Thus we read this warning in Deuteronomy: “When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and live in them, and when your flocks and herds have multiplied, and your silver and gold is multiplied, and all that you do is multiplied – then do not exalt yourself, forgetting the Lord your God…” (Dt 8:13-14) This warning sounds as relevant today as it was 3,000 years ago. Are you remembering to remember? Do you pause to recall all that God has done for you and with you and through you? Do you remember to give thanks to God at all times and in all places?
Remember the amazing grace that has brought us safe thus far. Never forget the hope that sustains us through all that comes our way. Remember – and give thanks to God!