How We Remember


The Rev. Noah Van Niel

October 1st, 2017


Pentecost 17 (Proper 21 A): Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16; Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32

We’re going to start this morning with a pop quiz. I want to know, who won the Super Bowl in 2013?…..Give up? It was the Baltimore Ravens. See, no wonder you couldn’t remember. Well, one of you may have.

Now that super bowl was watched by over 100 million people, probably most of you caught at least some of it. And it was not even five years ago that it happened. Granted the super bowl champion may not have a lot of impact on your life, but you’d think we could recall what happened during one of the most watched sporting events in American history, right?

Well, it’s not just because some mediocre team won a fluke super bowl that you probably had a hard time answering. It’s also because human beings are really good at forgetting. We forget our keys, we forget our anniversaries, we forget where we parked, we are experts at forgetting. And our propensity to forget is not just some modern consequence of technology melting our brains, it’s been that way from the beginning.

Forgetting was the biggest problem the Israelites had to contend with. Over and over and over again in the Old Testament we hear stories of how they forget God, turn away from him and end up in dire situations. At which point they turn back to God and ask for help. God helps them and then God asks them to remember him, they don’t and so they fall on hard times again. At which point they turn to God, ask for help, God comes through, they forget again and on and on and on. Today’s story from Exodus is just one example of this. God has delivered the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, made the waters of the Red Sea stand up for them to pass through, and fed them in the desert, but now they are thirsty and so they start complaining and stop believing. And God comes through, by bringing forth water from the rock. But (spoiler alert) they’re going to forget Him again in a few chapters by making a Golden Calf while Moses is up on Mt. Sinai. And so it goes.

The Israelites eventually realized that forgetfulness was a major problem, though. So they had to come up with ways for people to remember God so they wouldn’t repeat the mistakes of the past. What did they do? They found ritual ways to repeat the stories of God’s deliverance in, for example, the Psalms. A large number of the Psalms, like the one today, do precisely this, they recount “to generations to come the praiseworthy deeds and the power of the Lord and the wonderful works he has done” (Psalm 78:1-4). They tell the stories in word or song, they write the history of God’s saving help, so that in times of trouble people will not lose heart, but will tell the story, and remember, and remain faithful.

Stories are essential to our ability to remember. The stories we choose to tell highlight what we think is important to keep alive and that in turn shapes the present generation. Stories make us who we are.

I don’t know if it was because he was a historian by profession, but my Grandfather had a lot of stories. When we visited them, dinner became an extended affair lasting long after the ice cream had melted into sticky speckles on our plates. Even as a kid, I loved to sit a listen to these stories (even though they were often the same stories we heard the last time) because there seemed to be some essential part of him, and therefore of me, to be discovered in those vignettes.

There was the story of how he and his parents came to America from Holland, and how his father used to dress him up like a little Dutch boy, complete with wooden clogs, to sell tulip bulbs from a street cart to make ends meet which told me about why my Grandpa was so good about saving money. And then there was the story of his service in the South Pacific during WWII when his job was to make sure the soldiers all got their service pay, and how one Thanksgiving the President declared that every American service member would eat turkey on Thanksgiving so it was my grandfather’s job to fly from island to island in the sweltering south pacific rolling frozen butterball turkeys out on to the runway for the troops from which I learned about my Grandpa’s desire to always do the good, kind thing.

He told these stories so we would know a bit of where he came from, and what shaped him into the man he was, and they in turn became stories for us to tell, to remember our roots, to construct an identity, to determine what was valuable and meaningful and important for us to know and to do.

Each of us is a composite collection of many stories from many sources that combine to shape us into who we are. Now most of these stories are positive, but some aren’t. After all, not all history is good news, and not all the memories we try to keep alive are happy ones. Sometimes, our stories can trap us, allowing our present to be imprisoned—rather than informed—by our past. And sometimes our stories get stolen by another person who seeks to rewrite our narrative to make us less than God created us to be. Stories are powerful and that power can be helpful or harmful depending on how it is used.

But there is one story that we can safely tell about ourselves and about other people because it is not our story alone, but a story that has been told and shared for thousands of years. And billions upon billions of people have found their truest story within it. It’s a story that makes all those other stories, good or bad, secondary. It’s a story of identity and purpose; a story that reminds us what is important, and shapes our every action. It is the story that Paul tells to the Philippians in his letter this morning: that once upon a time there was a man who was God, who came among us not as a powerful ruler, but as a humble servant, “emptying himself” out of love for us, dying an unjust death, rising again, and who is now exalted in heaven so that we all might share in his praise and promise. This is the famous Christ Hymn, a proto-creed that seems to have been shared through the early church—perhaps as a song—to remind everyone that through Jesus Christ they share in a glory and a story that far surpasses any of this world. It is a story that renders all the other stories about who we are and where we come from secondary because it locates our primary identity in the person of Jesus Christ. And no one can ever take that identity away.

For those whose stories have left them feeling trapped, or whose voice has been commandeered by another, this story, the story of Jesus, is spectacularly good news. Jesus shares this good news with those prostitutes and tax collectors in the Gospel by saying they would get into the Kingdom of God before the chief priests and the elders, because he has given them a different story to cling to, a different place to find their value and their purpose. And in that same way, the story of Jesus liberates us from those unhelpful stories that can hold us back by grounding our story in his story; our life in his life.

Do you know that his story is your story too? That all the stories you tell about yourself are grounded in that story? That all the stories others tell about you are superseded by that story? I hope so. Because basically, that’s all we are trying to communicate in church each Sunday. We gather together to remember; to tell the story of Jesus Christ so that we might find our story in his. We sing songs, read Scripture, recite ancient prayers and creeds, re-enact a 2000 year old meal, all as a way to remind ourselves of…of what? Of who we are and whose we are. Of what is important; of what we desperately want to hold on to, lest we wander away and lose the memory of how much God loves us. We remember, in thought, word and deed, the way God has provided for all God’s faithful people in Jesus Christ and we take heart, or solace, or strength from the promise that He will provide for us as well. We tell the story that whether we’re a super bowl champion or a prostitute or a tax collector, we belong to Jesus. His story is our story. It’s a story of liberation and love; a story of truth and beauty; a story of heartache and joy. We tell this story because it tells us something of ourselves, something deep, something true, something wonderful, something we must never forget.