Matt. 18:15-20 +21
My theme today is remembering and forgetting. The Hebrew scriptures are very much a long story of God’s remembering a particular people and the Hebrew people’s struggle to remember God who rescued them from slavery in Egypt and not forget what makes them a people and what God asks of them. Much of the time they forget.
Today’s scripture from Exodus picks up the story at its climax, when God separates the waters so the people may pass, and then God lets the waters return and destroy the pursuing Egyptian army. But before that there had been months of haggling between Moses and Pharaoh, punctuated with various plagues to keep Pharaoh on task. And on the eve of their departure God called down the final plague, the death of the firstborn in every family in Egypt. Then Moses told the people to pack up, mark their doorposts with the blood of an animal so that their firstborn would be spared, to eat that animal in a final meal, which became known as their Passover meal, and be ready to go. All of this was to be remembered so that the Hebrew people would always know that their creation was God’s doing, and they came from the least fortunate of the earth, and their continued existence was the result of their willingness to relate to God and be led by God.
Once free of Egypt, God put the Hebrews through a 40 year course in trust and obedience to form them into a God-focused nation. God instructed them, “You shall remember that you were a servant in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty, outstretched arm. “[Deut. 5:15a] But the people, given unfamiliar manna to eat, instead remembered fondly the cucumbers and other vegetables which they had eaten in Egypt. God gave the people 10 simple rules to live by, rules which would put them in right relationship with God and with each other.
When they finally arrived at the edge of the Promised Land God said “And you shall remember all the ways which the Lord your God has led you these 40 years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not.” [Deut. 8:2] All they had to do was remember and follow those 10 simple rules, but their memory failed them again and again. So they devised a ritual of re-enacting their escape via the Passover meal.
To help themselves remember the Hebrew people told stories, stories of their origins, of early covenants with God, of their captivity in Egypt, their escape, their experience of wandering in the desert with nothing to eat but manna for years, trying again and again to follow God, but just as often trying to work things out for themselves and losing the core of their fledgling community. They not only told stories, but wrote them down, not glossing over their own disobedience and conflicts, but recording what actually happened they as best they could, for example, “And the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, forgetting the Lord their God, and serving the Ba’als and the Ashteroth.” [Judges 3:7] And so it went for many hundreds of years, remembering and faithfulness followed by distraction, then forgetting and losing their unique character until some prophet would call them back to faithfulness and a recommitment.
In the New Testament stories of Jesus’ life, it seems that Jesus wants people to remember how Moses and the early prophets knew God, i.e. as a loving creator who wants people to follow, no matter how their neighbors live, because God is always faithful. “Can a woman forget the child at her breast, that she should have no compassion on the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. Behold, I have graven you on the palms of my hands.” [Isaiah 49:15-16] To a God-centered people forgetting and remembering would be rare, just as Jesus lived a God-centered life. To Jesus, all the elaborate rules and practices of the Judaism he knew were unnecessary if one simply lived in constant communion with God and followed the ten commandments. And living in constant communion with God is not to ignore the world, because God is immanent in every speck of creation, and will demonstrate that to us if and when we live in constant communion with God.
But Jesus knew our tendency to forget, especially under stress. So he gave us a ritual of remembering, which we call Holy Communion. “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me. ... This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” [1 Cor.11: 24-25]
On the other hand, Jesus wanted people to forget all sorts of things to which they clung. He saw that current ideas of family obligations, of social class, of separating Jew from gentile, man from woman got in the way of everyone’s relating to God. He knew that disagreements and disputes did the same. In our gospel reading for today we find Jesus’ advice for resolving complaints about another’s behavior. It stops at verse 20, but I think it is important to notice that it is followed in verse 21 with the teaching we all know well, about how we should forgive one another hundreds of times. All of this gets at the fact that some things are better for us to forget than to remember. And, deeper yet, there are some habits of spirit, such as fear, which are best forgotten.
Jesus wanted us to remember God’s long faithfulness and love for us, as well as Jesus’ own faithfulness and love for his friends. And he wanted us to forget the things which keep us from living a God-centered life: complicated religious practices, social expectations which divide us or keep us from freely following him, and habits of spirit, such as fear, rivalry and greed. These things are best forgotten.
Applications: So here are two invitations. First, in your own life consider today what is most important for you to remember, and what would it best serve you to be forgotten? [Repeat]
And second, as we try to be a community, a church, a part of the body of Christ, I invite us to ask the same question of our life together. What is most important here and now for us to remember, and what would best serve us to be forgotten?
I find this a daunting question. Can we even compare ourselves to the Israelites? We have a history; do we know it? Are there stories and rituals which help us to remember it? What have we forgotten? We began our life together in 1976 when the Church of the Saviour split from one larger church into several worshiping communities. This was Gordon Cosby’s idea, and he said it was important to keep the intimacy of a very small faith community, and the C of S was in danger of growing too large. So those living at Dayspring and a few others formed Dayspring Church. I ran across a poem written during those early years by Carol Martin, who was then called Carol Wilkinson. It evokes for me the spirit of those years of the infancy of our church. [Read poem.]
Then times changed. Our pastor, Barbara Nance, resigned and we decided not to hire a new one. We embarked upon shared leadership in the fullest sense. I suspect this was the beginning of our adolescence as a church. A few years later, we were required to incorporate separately from the Church of the Saviour. That was the occasion of our needing to carefully think through our life together, and its structures and formally write up in our application papers how we would operate. It was also, perhaps, our first attempt at adult life as a church.
And now we are 38 years old. What has become of us? Carol’s poem speaks of our patching together our life with no pattern and no teacher, resulting in a church of mixed amateurism and beauty. What is left to us from those times for us to remember or forget?
Most of us come here as refugees from other forms of church, often wounded and wanting community, but community that is different and church life that is different from the one before. What is the result? What is there from our process for us to remember or forget?
What are the constants in our life from the rocking chair circle to now?
What have we gained or lost, remembered or forgotten?
And what about our faithfulness. To what have we been faithful? Are we more centered about Jesus now than before?
Brigid Gregory-Hines says of remembering, “But however we remember it - or choose to remember it - the past is the foundation that holds our lives in place. ... What defines us isn’t where we are going, but where we’ve been.”
Tim Challies writes of forgetting, “We deliberately forget because forgetting is a blessing. On both an emotional level and a spiritual level, forgetting is a natural part of the human experience and a natural function of the human brain. It is a feature, not a bug, one that saves us from being owned by our memories. Can a world that never forgets be a world that truly forgives?”
Cees Nooteboom writes of forgetting, “Forgetting is like medicine; you have to take it at the right time.”
Joyce Cary writes, “To forgive is wisdom, to forget is genius. And easier. Because it is true. It’s a new world every heartbeat.”
Here and now, what is it important for you and us all to remember?
And what is it better for us to forget?