Sunday, November 05, 2006

All Saints' - Year B

Aristotle complained that the act of writing diminished memory. He was concerned that once we write something down we don’t have to remember it anymore.

For folks like me, this sounds more like a godsend than a curse. Shopping lists. Phone numbers. Short reminder messages. All these things on little scraps of paper are, for me, as important to my getting along in the world as a telephone or toilet paper.

So maybe, I’m the living example that proves that Aristotle was right. We don’t need to tax our grey matter because we have pens and paper, or styluses and Blackberrys, to remember things for us.

But Aristotle worried that, even in writing down the most trivial lists, something is lost, a way of thinking, remembering, and relating – even a way of life - was given away.

Communications theorists say that this marked the transition from the Oral culture to the Literate culture. But in that transition, a link to the past was broken, a human connection marked by the simple act of one person telling another person a story.

Our Anglican and Roman Catholic friends say that the line through history that connects us with Jesus is bishops, because every bishop has had hands laid on them by other bishops, back through the centuries to the times of the apostles, even back to Peter himself. They call this “apostolic succession.”

But I wonder if God also works in less churchy ways. I wonder if the line that connects us from today back to Jesus’ time is not just in folks in big hats praying for one another by putting their hands on each other’s heads, but by a mother telling her children a story, who in turn tell the story to their children. And down through the ages the story travels, until someone tells the story to us. That story links us to our common past in ways that church rituals cannot.

To settle a dispute in 1127 as to whether the customs dues at the port of Sandwich went to St. Augustine’s Abbey or Christ Church, a jury was chosen consisting of twelve men from Dover and twelve from Sandwich, ‘mature, wise seniors of many years, having good testimony’ as they were described. Each juror then swore that as, ‘I have received from my ancestors, and I have seen and heard from my youth,’ the tolls belong to Christ Church. They publicly remembered what others before them had remembered. (Walter Ong, Orality and Literacy p. 96)

Memory. It’s what connects us.

Writer and holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel stands before the Holocaust Museum, reliving the horrors of Buchenwald and Auschwitz, and says, “Remember, Remember, Remember.” Elsewhere, Wiesel writes, “Salvation can only be found in memory.”

I think I know what he means. When we forget, we are apt to repeat the mistakes of the past. Memory helps us to learn from our experiences, especially the hard ones. Memory help us to grow.

So why does the church celebrate All Saints’ Day if not to remember? On this Sunday we remember the saints, those children of God who’ve retold the saving story from generation to generation, and we realize how our indebted we are to them. We remember. And in remembering we say thanks to those whose gifts have made us who we are.

Some memories are happy, joyfilled, and life-giving. Others are less so. So what do we do with the burden of horrible memory? How do we confront the trauma of a painful past?

Many families have their stories, their secrets, their histories that they don’t want to remember. Uncle Jack who served 20 years to life. Cousin Jane who joined a cult. Grandfather Smith, who couldn’t be trusted to be alone with the children, long before we had a name for folks like him.

These are stories that we don’t want to remember, but are part of us nonetheless, even if these stories are not told, silent pages of books not opened.

Sometimes, memories keep our scars open and wounds raw.

In many parts of the world, like in the former Yugoslavia, in Northern Ireland, in the Middle East, and in many other places, memory is the engine that keeps the cycle of retribution and violence moving.

Terrible memory. But memory nonetheless.

No doubt you’ve heard the phrase, “Time heals all wounds.” It sounds right – on a surface level. Something we say when we don’t know what to say. But I wonder what the mother who buried her child thinks of that little cliché. Or the old man who still lies awake at night, re-living that day at Dieppe.

In the days following her husband’s tragic death, we thought she was going to die, so deep was her grief. But then, one day, her eyes weren’t so sad. “What changed?” I wondered.

“I just woke up one day and forgot to remember,” she explained.

But she wasn’t sure if she liked not remembering. Her not remembering didn’t feel like it was the same thing as healing. Time was not doing what the cliché promised. Not remembering felt like abandonment. She worried that her grief was all that she had left of her husband. If she didn’t have her memory of him, what did she have?

In preparing for this sermon, I read a homily by a well-known preacher who suggested that the best way to redeem our painful memories is to learn how to forget them. He said that when we nurture the memory of evil or pain, we give them legitimacy and the evil and pain lives and rules again in our lives. That in remembering past wrongs, we lock ourselves and our transgressors in the past.

I found myself bristling at his suggestion. Other than the utter impossibility (short of a lobotomy) of pressing the delete button in our brains so to live free from the tyranny of a painful and evil past, I questioned the wisdom of even wanting to be liberated from our memories in the first place.

Memories, even painful ones make us who we are. Memories are pages of the story that make up our lives. If we rip out one chapter or rub out one sentence from the book the story won’t make sense.

Its Jacob wrestling with the angel, beating a blessing out of God’s messenger. But with the blessing came a wound, a limp. Without that limp, Jacob wouldn’t have been Jacob.

Remembering the past, past wrongs, past hurts, past failures, is important. But it’s also important to remember the future. After all, isn’t that also why we’re here today? To remember our future, the promise of a new creation, the hope of the resurrection to eternal life?

Don’t we gather to remember that we are part of a larger story, one that has been told for centuries?

God doesn’t forget the past. God redeems it. Like Elie Wiesel standing in front of the Holocaust museum asking us to remember past atrocities, he also points to a different, more human and compassionate future.

Like the woman who lost her husband and one day “forgot” to remember him, God is asking us to receive joy in human relationships, to remember that death is the last enemy to be defeated. And that a new creation has been promised, so our job is to look for signs of it all around us.

So, this day, let us pray for wisdom to remember the saints, to give thanks that they told us God’s story, and for the grace to pass it down to the next generation, until that day, when God comes among mortals, and death will be no more. When God will wipe away every tear from our eyes. For God will have made all things new.

May we remember that story. Amen.


Post a Comment

<< Home