Sunday, October 16, 2016

The Power of Memory

How many things do you think we forget in a day? The answers from the professionals range from 4 specific tasks or items - along the lines of charging our phones, picking up the milk or where we placed our keys - to 99% of what we observe to the very scientific answer "a lot."

The continued existence of the Western way of life in our time demands a sort of amnesia[1]. To go about daily life in the way of the average North American suburbanite is to forget -- and so we must be very skilled in the art of forgetting. It is necessary, when I go to the mall, that I must forget about the many pairs of shoes gracing the back of my bedroom door. At the grocery store, faced with aisle after aisle of options, it is necessary that you forget about the lettuce growing limp, the cheese moldering in a drawer in your refrigerator, the person who has one can or none in their cupboard, not ten cans or freezer or fresh to choose from.

The economy's health demands that you forget the person who may or may not be working this Sabbath day to stitch the sweater you will be buying on Black Friday. It is necessary, for the sake of the economy, or empire (pick your E word, they may be one and the same), to forget the first inhabitants of the land over which this newest oil pipeline is intended to run, and its current inhabitants, for that matter.

I remember a little girl who could not go to sleep one night because she was sad about the polar bears, whom she had just learned were losing their habitat due to the melting of the polar ice cap. Truth be told, I had forgotten, and I found myself disconcerted, until I managed to forget again.

We must forget, on a daily basis, the polar bear and the Great Barrier Reef, or we would fail to buy our next car, or take our next business trip, or perhaps offer a prayer of confession with too much earnestness.

"Come, let us forget together," says the voice of Empire. "Let us be at ease together. Go to sleep. Do not think overmuch about past or future."

Forgetting has its gifts; it seems to hold the world's hurt at bay for a while. There are so many hurts that if we were to hold them all tenderly we would be leaving trails of tears all over the sidewalk. The Empire's offer sounds like a reasonable compromise toward daily survival.

So we accept the invitation to live in today, and when fear of tomorrow, or pain of yesterday intrudes, we cushion it with more sensory input, more work, more stuff -- embedding ourselves ever more deeply in the trappings of empire.

This forgetting business is the root of all sorts of brokenness. Contrary to its promise to make things easier, it causes dis-ease. Forgetting steals something of our humanity. It is a spiritual sickness, separating us from God, from creation, from neighbor.

If forgetting is the disease, what is the best remedy? Remembering.

My AP history teacher had a banner printed over his classroom blackboard: those who fail to remember the past are condemned to repeat it.  Remembering is good for more than passing a history test or becoming a Jeopardy champion.  Remembering, if done properly, is an act of resistance.

In school we do a lot of intellectual remembering - using our brains; remembering from the neck up. This is good, and worthy - and incomplete.

God gave us so much more than our brains. Remembering done properly frees the whole body to remember. We remember with our sense of smell; the scientists tell us that's the sense most closely linked with our memory centers. We remember with our muscles. Muscle memory (athletes? musicians?) comes from hours of practice, somehow knowing the “how” of doing something without even needing to consciously think about it.

Building those patterns is important so we can draw on them in urgently needed moments, when we’re under stress. This is why we are a community of faith, not solitary practitioners. This is why we gather to worship, not try to follow the way of Christ on our own.

Our worship is a practice of freedom – an act of remembering together; an act of resistance against a world that actively urges us to forget. More and more often, we are getting out of our heads and remembering with our whole selves in worship. We are singing freedom in so many musical languages - in traditional hymn, and jazz, and acapella spiritual and African rhythm. That music sometimes inspires our bodies get into the game, and ALLELUIA, freedom is coming - the Holy Spirit is in the house.

Freedom is profoundly unsettling. Worship to equip us for leaving is going to have to rattle the foundations of empire. It might have rattle us, too.

One lesson this thorny passage from Exodus is teaching us is that God knows we are good at forgetting. Even before freeing the people from captivity God sets out instructions for remembering this crucial saving act. God knows we will need it to get us through trouble time and time again.

It's not like we encounter only one Pharaoh throughout all of history. The Empire shows up with different names, in different disguises. It's not like George Lucas came up with Star Wars from nothing! There’s Pharaoh in Egypt, and Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon, Rome under the Caesars, colonial powers of Europe carving up Asia, Africa and the Americas...Hitler's Germany and Mussolini's Italy. Our own country, the United States of America, has had Pharaohs and been Empire. There are places we are doing it now, and we are always at risk of doing it again. There are Pharaohs in our workplaces. You may have survived a Pharaoh in your home, in a personal relationship. Their presence may be uncomfortably close. You may be staring down a drug-or-alcohol or food-based Pharaoh.

They all say the same thing: forget. Forget who and whose you are. You belong to me. Let me decide for you.   And for every cry of every one of God’s children facing any Pharaoh, God proclaims FREEDOM with a voice to shatter the night.   God says, REMEMBER.  You are my child. I will not abandon you.

The instructions for the Passover observance tell the people of God it is not just a good thing, but imperative to remember. Not just with our HEADS but with our whole beings: Body, attitude. Community.

In the face of these domineering Pharaohs, our solitary brains are not gonna be enough to remember with, folks. This is going to have to be a whole-body, whole-community remembering.

Remember what the Lord did for you, when he brought you up out of Egypt?  We need to be able to both SAY it and DO it for one another. With one another. Get ready to move, Moses said, God is about to do something big. Put your shoes on. Act as if this is an urgent business.

Remember? You are MY people. I will lead you up and out of this place. Remember this day, body and soul. Remember what I am doing. This is who I am. In the night of chaos and crying I will be with you. You are marked for freedom. You are mine.


[1] NIB 787

Preached October 16, 2016 at McFarland UCC.  Text, excerpts from Exodus 12 and 13.