Delivered 11-9-16 at Pilgrim Congregational Church, Redding CA
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always offering prayer with joy in my every prayer for you all, in view of your participation in the gospel from the first day until now. For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus. For it is only right for me to feel this way about you all, because I have you in my heart, since both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel, you all are partakers of grace with me.
When most of us hear the word remembering, what probably comes to mind is associated with memory. We tend to think of remembering as a one-time act of bringing to mind something that has happened.
I think this definition serves us well in everyday life. But I think that the term is broader than an occasional act of memory, although that act certainly figures into the larger meaning of the word which I want to explore today.
I want to explore the word in order to draw some larger pictures with it, especially those which help illustrate this Christian life. In doing so, I hope you’ll pardon a bit of a pun. The word remember comes from words that mean “to bring back into mind,” but in English the word can be thought of as the opposite of “dismember”, a word which does not share the same root word for “member.” One is related to memory, the other is related to flesh, like “membrane”. However, I think our task of remembering also has the effect of re-membering, so to speak. When we forget something, it’s like losing a part of who we are. We no longer act as if that experience is a part of us. When we bring something back to mind, we re-integrate it into our lives.
I want to read the passage today from the Psalms to provide a setting for this journey of remembering we’re about to take. Without an honest admission that we have forgotten who we are and what we are doing, our journey toward remembering is aimless.
Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, And in sin my mother conceived me. Behold, You desire truth in the innermost being, And in the hidden part You will make me know wisdom. Purify me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Make me to hear joy and gladness, Let the bones which You have broken rejoice. Hide Your face from my sins And blot out all my iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God, And renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me away from Your presence And do not take Your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of Your salvation And sustain me with a willing spirit.
I imagine that most of us at various young ages knew what it was that we were going to do. I don’t mean professions — our jobs and titles. I mean our truly high and unnamable aspirations, before we were distracted by things like status and wealth or more generally just ‘making a difference’.
In some moments of wistful clarity I can recall childhood hopes unburdened by so-called practicalities. I think especially of hearing for the first times Christ’s admonition to the young ruler to sell all his belongings and give them to the poor. At those times that seemed like the most natural thing in the world and something I’d hope to do: shouldn’t a rich man be willing to give up all his stuff to gain the bliss of salvation? I imagine that even as I mention it that it seems intuitive and natural, especially as we’re sitting in church. But most of us also probably feel like we wouldn’t if it were asked of us in our everyday lives.
As I acquired things, I conveniently forgot that they were to give away. Whenever confronted with the verse, I developed rationalizations. I became a sort of competitor to the rich young ruler. Not only would I acquire things but I would be able to give them away. But I’d have to get things in order to give them away, right?
Of course, my rationalizations had no effect on the true meaning of the verse. In that process of rationalization, my original hope to live so freely as to not become possessed by possessions, was lost. Or rather, it was dis-membered. I know exactly where it is, and when I go looking for it I can find it.
However, the cloud of justifications and distractions I have built up to avoid it are like blackberry vines, and the process to re-member it is painful. Sometimes I give up altogether. But each time the path becomes more clear and the more often I visit that hope, the more I remember it, the more it is re-membered.
As remembering is a personal task, so it is also an inter-personal task. In Paul’s letter this morning, he gives thanks each time he remembers the Philippians. A reading of that passage alone might suggest that it only means he is thankful for his time with them. But throughout the letter he makes it clear there is a more subtle meaning. This is not just a calling-to-mind of an occasion, but the regular deepening of a mystical union with the believers in Christ. One chapter later he says
“If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose.”
This passage contains references to both the literal and pun-inspired meanings of the word remember. Paul exhorts the believers to be like-minded as a result of being of one body with Christ.
And how is this body characterized? The next passage tells us that Christ “, being in very nature God…made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant.” Like remembering our own pasts, remembering Christ and our place with others is also a bittersweet act of humility and submission.
When I think of those who are earnestly striving, are honest in their failures and humble in their successes, no matter where I may think they are in relationship to my own personal walk, I feel at one with them because we are both one with God. I imagine it was the same with Paul.
We are together “partakers of Grace,” as Paul says. We both drink from the same spring and the same spring gives us life. The Lord’s prayer says “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Sometimes it is useful for correction to think of this in terms of the two slaves, one of whom does not forgive the other and is condemned by their master. But this phrase “partakers of Grace” gives us another way to consider this admonition. All that we have is granted, afforded to us not by our merit but purely by grace. Many times when we sin against each other it is when we think that we are more deserving of some piece of matter, like the car to which we have become accustomed to driving, or the food before us, even though all these things are ultimately God’s. When we remember each other and the grace which has equally and infinitely been afforded us we become more pleasant, more equitable, more peaceful.
When we think of what happened on this date fifteen years ago, we tend to forget many of the concepts about which I’ve been talking. Many of us, including myself, are typically filled with anger instead of a deep sadness. This anger is often incompatible with mindfulness, another word sharing a Greek root with “remember”. We jump to identifying and condemning the perpetrators, becoming divided over their identity and motivation. We argue about what we should have done both as individuals and as a country. But for fifteen years, very little of that anger has done any good. We often say “never forget” but I wonder often we actually remember.
Remembering is not an act of judgement.
We have been going through this series which has generally been structured around the cycle of sowing and reaping. When we think about our lives in terms of growth cycles, remembering is one of the last things to be done before the new season. It comes after bearing and sustaining, but it comes before releasing. We must learn before we can release, which we must do before we can move on.
So in order to learn, we simply observe the past. We recognize the good and bad times and write them down. We remember the methods we used and make notes of what worked and what didn’t. We cherish both the good and bad fruits because they tell us about our actions by the way they have grown. When we plant and nurture next spring we will have plenty of opportunity to discriminate and to pick the best seeds and seedlings. But when we remember, we simply let things be as they have been.
Like the psalmist, we should confess our own personal sins — which have contributed to horrific acts whether we know it or not.
Like Paul, we should look for ways in which we can commune with an ever-perfecting human population.
We should be thankful for the grace which has kept us from death so far and should consider how to extend that grace to others.
We cannot change the past and we cannot make a bad fruit better. But without a deep remembering, we may contribute further to the things of which we are afraid. When we remember, we make again whole that which has been dismembered. When we remember, we learn what we have forgotten.
Without excluding any other good task, it may be said that to remember is the whole journey of the Christian: to know and to become again what we were made to be.
What was once dismembered has been reconciled and continues to be re-membered into the Body of Christ.