Forgetting to Remember

Sermon on Genesis 9:8-17 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.  To hear audio of this sermon, click here.

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Jill Price. To read an article about her condition, click here.

Jill Price, a forty-something school administrator from California, remembers everything that has happened to her since she was eleven years old.  I want to make it very clear, I don’t mean that she has particularly vivid memories of her senior prom or the first time she travelled abroad.  Rather, Ms. Price remembers what she had for breakfast three decades ago. As a result of her unique and remarkable memory, psychological professionals have diagnosed Price with an otherwise unknown condition called hyperthymesia.  Others have simply and more romantically dubbed her, “The Woman who can’t Forget.”

Though some have questioned whether Price’s astonishing memory is the result of hyperthymesia or a form of obsessive compulsive disorder, the practical consequences are the same: Jill Price has an extraordinarily difficult time making decisions.  You might think that a long and detailed memory would be an advantage when dealing with a dilemma, that recalling a similar situation would give one perspective when making a decision.  For Price, however, the opposite is true.  She is so overwhelmed with memories that she has no idea how to discern which are important.  In other words, she lacks the crucial ability to forget. Neuroscientists contend that one of the reasons human beings forget is so that we can recognize the importance of what we actually remember.  Ironically, Jill Price’s paralyzing ability to recall every detail of her past effectively prevents her from remembering anything of lasting significance.  The flood of information about who she was prevents her from becoming who she is meant to be.

In Scripture, there is an interesting tension around the notion of memory.  On one hand, memory is held up as one of the primary virtues of the community of faith.  Israel, for instance, was commanded to remember its liberation from the land of Egypt.  Jesus commanded his disciples to eat the Eucharistic meal in order to remember him.  On the other hand, there are moments in Scripture when God’s people are exhorted to forget.  In Isaiah, the LORD instructs the exiled nation of Israel “not to remember the former things or consider the things of old.”  In his letter to the Philippians, St. Paul implies that the Christian life is about “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead.”  The writers of the Old and New Testaments, in other words, indicate that there is a complicated relationship between faith and memory.

imgresNowhere is this ambivalence more clearly articulated than in the passage we heard from Genesis this morning.  The story of the flood is one of the most familiar in Scripture.  Not only is it an important reference point in the biblical witness, it is also an indelible part of popular culture; just think about how many nurseries are decorated with images of Noah standing on an ark full of smiling animals.  But there is a way in which the very ubiquity of this story has taken away its power.  For many people, the story of the flood is so familiar, so timeworn, that it has become cliched.  But it is important for us to see this story not as a mere fairy tale about a rainstorm and a boat full of animals, but as the foundational statement about the nature of God’s relationship with humanity.

The first pages of Genesis do not paint a particularly flattering picture of human beings.  After God creates the heavens and the earth in the first two chapters, it’s pretty much downhill from there.  From chapter 3 onward, all we read about is how human beings tried to put themselves in God’s place, whether it was Adam and Eve disobeying God’s explicit instruction regarding the Tree of Knowledge or Cain jealously murdering his brother.  The first chapters of Genesis describe a downward spiral of sin.  At the beginning of the flood story, the writer explains that “the LORD saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually.”  As a result, God is sorry that he created human beings.  God’s heart is grieved that these beings created to have free will used that very freedom to turn away from God.  God is heartbroken, and God decides to start over, to give the world a new birth, to blot out what he had made and start again.

But here is the astonishing thing.  God decides to save a small group of righteous human beings, the very creatures who had abused their freedom and sent the world into a tailspin of destructive sin.  It is implicitly illogical.  God knows that when these creatures with free will are left to their own devices, they ignore God and turn toward themselves.  And yet, God includes them in the renewal of creation. Moreover, even though God was working with these same disobedient creatures, after the flood God promises “never again will all flesh be cut off,” that the world will never again be destroyed as a result of humanity’s disobedience.  The Hebrew word the writer uses also implies that as a result of this covenant, it is impossible for us to be completely separated from God’s faithfulness and love.  Notice that this covenant is completely one-sided.  It is not contingent on whether human beings shape up.  God pledges to remember this everlasting covenant regardless of our repeated attempts to put ourselves in God’s place.  It is here that the complicated relationship between faith and memory becomes most evident.  In order to remember this everlasting covenant with Noah, God has to forget the countless ways that God’s people have rejected him.  Indeed, the remainder of Scripture is the story of God’s repeated attempts to draw us to himself and our repeated failure to respond.  God made a covenant with Abraham, gave the Law to Moses at Sinai, brought God’s people into the Promised Land, instituted a monarchy, sent prophets to warn God’s people, placed them into exile, brought them back from exile and still we refused to respond.  Nevertheless, God was able to forget all of these rejections because they were overshadowed by the memory of God’s covenant with Noah: the foundational promise a that there is nothing we can do to cut off our relationship with God.

In many ways, Lent embodies the tension of faith and memory.  It is a season that begins with a potent reminder of our mortality and ends with a reenactment of the final days of Jesus’ life.  At the same time, it is a period when we forego certain aspects of our lives, forgetting, if only for a time, our typical routine.  This paradox helps us remember Lent’s true purpose.  Lent is not about giving things up in order to somehow please God.  Rather, this season is an opportunity to forget everything that distracts us from our relationship with God so that we can remember God’s enduring faithfulness.  It is a time to name and forget our failures so that they can be overwhelmed by the memory of God’s everlasting covenant.  It is a season that enables us to let go of who we once were so that we can become who we are meant to be.

Dark Horse

Sermon on Genesis 12:1-4a offered to the people of the Church of the Heavenly Rest.

imgresIn 1844, the people of the United States elected a president no one had ever heard of.  That’s not entirely true, of course.  James Polk was both Speaker of the House of Representatives and Governor of Tennessee, so his name was known in the political circles of the day.  The thing is, no one expected him to be nominated, much less elected to the presidency.  In 1844, most observers assumed that the presidential contest would be between Martin Van Buren, who had served as president from 1837 to 1841, and Henry Clay, who had already unsuccessfully run for the office in 1824 and 1832.  Nevertheless, due to a variety of factors, like a deadlocked convention and the endorsement Van Buren’s former ally Andrew Jackson, Polk received the Democratic nomination for president.  And even though most people assumed that 1844 was finally Clay’s year, James K. Polk won the election by a fairly convincing margin.

urlIn spite of the fact that Polk served only a single term in office and died shortly thereafter, his legacy is surprisingly significant.  Through his negotiations with Great Britain and his prosecution of the Mexican-American War, Polk is responsible for acquiring territory that now makes up a large portion of the United States, including Washington, Oregon, Idaho, California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and of course, Texas. Furthermore, the acquisition of all this territory impelled Congress to deal with the question of slavery, which may have hastened the onset of the Civil War.  But perhaps the most enduring popular legacy of James Polk’s presidency is the fact that he was the first so-called “dark horse” candidate for president in this country.  Because Polk was largely unknown to the political establishment, his candidacy took most people by surprise and frankly, no one had any real expectations of him.  Since Polk’s presidency, the notion that an unknown can be nominated and elected president has become an important part of the American political narrative, even though it has only happened a handful of times.  Pundits and party strategists spend inordinate amounts of energy trying to determine who the next “dark horse” candidates are going to be (which arguably means that they aren’t dark horse candidates anymore).  The reason for this is the same reason we pretend that so many of our presidents were born in log cabins: there is a romance about the dark horse candidate.  The very concept resonates with our deepest hopes about the American Dream: that literally anyone can be elected president; literally anyone can attain the goals they set for themselves.

In our reading from Genesis today, we are introduced to Abram, who in some ways is the ultimate dark horse candidate from Scripture.  Now you may be thinking, “Come on!  Abraham?  The “father of many nations”?  The patriarch of patriarchs?  He’s somehow a dark horse?  Get out of here!”  But please, hear me out.  Up to this point in Genesis, we have the story of God’s attempt to be in relationship with all of humanity at once.  To put it mildly, things have not gone terribly well.  Adam and Eve have disobeyed God’s commandment in the Garden of Eden, Cain has murdered Abel, and humanity has gotten together to build a huge tower so that they can be like God.  So in chapter twelve, God adopts a new strategy.  Instead of trying to be in relationship with all of humanity at once, God decides to be in relationship with a single person and his family.  This is the genesis, if you will, of Israel’s understanding of their identity as a chosen people; the people of Israel traced their lineage back to Abraham, who they believed was chosen by God to be the father of a great nation.  The fascinating thing is that Genesis does not give us a reason for why God chose Abram.  The very first mention of Abram takes place at the end of the previous chapter, and all we are told is about him is that his father’s name was Terah, his wife’s name was Sarai, and they settled in the land of Canaan.  We do not hear that he was righteous or blameless like Noah or that he was particularly well suited to the life of a nomad or that he had any particular qualifications for being chosen by God.  This is striking.  This chapter is a hinge point in Genesis; in fact, it is hinge point for the story of God and God’s people and it all centers around this guy we’ve never heard of, this guy we don’t know anything about, this guy who was chosen by God for reasons that are beyond our understanding.  We are by no means the first to notice that Genesis fails to give Abram a backstory.  In fact, during the early days of Rabbinic Judaism, a midrash (or non-biblical story) about Abram circulated among the rabbis.  The midrash suggests that Abram’s father Terah was an idol maker, and that one day Abram, in a fit of righteous anger, stormed into his father’s workshop and destroyed every statue, thus demonstrating his intense and complete devotion to God.  While this is a great story, it says more about the fact that we want to know why God chose Abram than it does about Abram’s personal history.

This leaves us in the uneasy position of acknowledging that Abram is something of a dark horse: we don’t know where he came from or what the rationale for choosing him might have been.  Human beings like to make predictions, we like to put things in categories, we like to anticipate things before they happen, we like to decide who the dark horse candidate is going to be before they arrive on the scene.  Yet, in this crucial moment in the story of God and God’s people, we see that God’s choices rarely align with our expectations.  And this leads us inexorably into the uncertain territory of trust.  In all likelihood, the fact that we don’t know anything about Abram’s backstory means that he was also taken by surprise when God chose him.  Imagine his shock when he heard the Lord say, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.”  For all we know, this is the first time that Abram heard the voice of the Lord.  And God does not provide an itinerary, God does not say how long Abram will be traveling, God does not say if Abram will ever see his family again.  All God does is hold out the vague promise that through Abram “all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”  And Genesis tells us that for whatever reason, “Abram went, as the Lord had told him.”  It’s really quite astonishing. Abram’s “call story,” this pivotal moment in the history of God’s people takes up only three and half verses.  We are not told that Abram asks questions, nor are we told that God explains his choice; we are only told that Abram is told to go and goes.  It’s no wonder that in his letter to the Romans, St. Paul summarizes the patriarch’s story with a single verse: “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.”  As you’ve probably heard before, the Greek word that we typically translate as “believe” can just as easily be rendered “trust.”  In other words, Paul’s summary of Abraham’s story is that he trusted God, and because of his trust, God considered Abraham righteous.

He may have trusted God, but he wasn't happy about it...
He may have trusted God, but he wasn’t happy about it…

This raises a question about what Abram trusted, about what Abram was called to trust.  On one hand, it is clear that God was calling Abram to trust that he would inherit the land promised to him, that his journey would someday come to an end, that God was leading Abram toward a destination.  On the other hand, there is the promise that concludes God’s call to Abram: “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”  This promise comes before any of the other promises the Lord makes to Abram: before God promises that Abram’s descendants will be like the sand on the seashore, before Abram is promised the land of the Perizzites, Canaanites, and Jebusites, even before God promises that Abram’s wife Sarai will bear a son.  Before any of these other promises, God calls Abram to trust that he will be a blessing to the nations.  In some ways, this is the most extraordinary promise of all.  Abram was a nomad, a herdsman, a man without pedigree or evident talent, a dark horse, and God tells him to trust that he will be a means of blessing for the whole world.  In response to this outlandish promise, Abram trusts God and establishes the vocation for God’s people.  In the end, Scripture tells us that God did not choose Israel for their benefit, but for the benefit of all the people of the world, for the benefit of God’s whole creation.  As Christians, we trust that through Jesus Christ, we have been incorporated into that heritage, that we have become part of God’s chosen people, and that we too are called to be a blessing to the entire world.  Abram’s act of trust is ultimately the means by which all people will come into relationship with the God who created and redeemed them.

Pope-Francis-waving-crowdThis week marks the anniversary of the selection of another dark horse.  On March 13 of last year, Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected to be the Bishop of Rome.  Calling himself Francis after the poor friar of Assisi and the founder of the Jesuit order, the Pope quickly began to make waves as he dispensed with the traditional trappings of the papacy and began to reform the bureaucracy of the Roman Catholic Church.  Perhaps most strikingly, the Pope insisted that the Church was called to be in solidarity with the poor and downtrodden.  Prior to the selection of Pope Francis, there were many observers who claimed that the Roman Catholic Church, and indeed the Church generally, had outlived its usefulness, that it was no longer relevant, that it was plagued by so many issues that it could not possibly survive.  And yet, even in the face of all of these criticisms, even though he hasn’t dealt with all the issues plaguing the church, this first year of Francis’ papacy has been shaped by his understanding that the Church can and must be a blessing to the world.  Francis’ attitude in this first year of his papacy has been the embodiment of the Anglican Archbishop William Temple’s observation: “The Church is the only society that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members.”  The season of Lent is an opportunity for us to embrace this reality, to embrace our call to be a blessing to the world.  We are called to realize that God calls every one of us, no matter who we are, to help the people of this world understand how much God loves them.  By doing so, we, like Abram, will be dark horses, blessing the world with God’s promise of love for all people.