Sermon: Remember Not To Forget
Scripture: Joshua 4:1-7
Date: May 28, 2017
I find the older I get the more I struggle to remember things like I did when I was young. Names are particularly troublesome. More and more it takes a few moments to recall people’s names. Eventually they come (usually) but not as easily as they did thirty years ago. And then there are the times that I go from one room to the next and then can’t recall why I came in the first place. I often have to laugh at myself.
I recently read about a young woman doctor who came to practice in a small rural town and everyone welcomed her except old Mr. Jones. He was the town grouch and was determined to show her up. So he made an appointment with her and when she asked what was ailing him he said: “Doctor, I can’t taste anything anymore.” So the young doctor examined him and couldn’t find anything wrong with him and she said: “What you need is my special concoction number 3.” So she went and mixed up a bunch of different things into a glass and gave it to Mr. Jones drink it. Well Mr. Jones took one drink and immediately spit it back out. “What kind of a witch doctor are you? Why that’s the worst tasting stuff I’ve ever tasted,” he said loud enough that everyone in the waiting room could here. “Yes” the doctor said, “but I’m the doctor who just restored your sense of taste with it.” Well Mr. Jones left the office in a huff but a few weeks later returned. “What is bothering you now Mr. Jones?” the young woman asked. “Doctor” he said, “I’ve lost my memory. I can’t remember a thing.” And so the Doctor examined him and finding nothing wrong, said to him, “What you need is my special concoction number 3”. But before the doctor could go and get it, Mr. Jones said, again loudly enough for every one in the office to hear. “I’m not drinking that foul stuff again. What kind of a doctor are you?” And the doctor said, “Apparently the kind that can cure your memory problems.”
Now some of us (a few of us) (ok maybe just one or two of us) find humor in that story but as is often the case in humor there is a profound truth. You see that Doctor was wise beyond her years because she knew that it is memory that heightens all our senses, that brings taste and zest to our lives. I recently had a friend who, because of a virus lost his sense of taste. And he went to a doctor who was an expert in the field who confirmed the diagnosis and told him he may never regain that sense of taste. And my friend asked him, “You mean I may never taste anything again?” And the doctor said, “Some things you eat you will continue to have the sensation of taste because you remember what they taste like. As long as you remember, you will taste them.” Memory is such a precious thing. When we are young it is our short term memories that drive us. I went through a period where I thought if something did not happen in my lifetime, it was not important to me.
Sometimes we suffer from that as a culture. I recently saw a poll that was taken among current football fans of the top 100 football players of all time. And only a handful of those who made the list played before the year 2000. Now many of us know that there were a lot of great football players who played before 2000. In fact, I am a Green Bay Packers fan today, not because of the players that are currently on the team but because of my memories of watching the great Packers teams and players of the 1960’s. Now many of those have become victims of our collective short term memories.
But as we grow older, our short term memories begin to fade and it is our long term memories that often give taste and zest and meaning to our life in our later years. The Rabbis of Jesus day knew this and they often told a story about a man who was forced to make a choice about retaining his memory or his sight. He could have one or the other, but could no longer have both. What would you choose if confronted with that same choice? Well the man chose to lose his memory and retain his sight. And the Rabbis would say that he made the wrong choice. Because, they would say, without our memories we cannot truly see. And though I know that my memory lapses are all part of getting older, I also know it bothers me more since I watched my mother struggle so with her memory loss in the last months of her life. Her greatest fear was that she would completely lose her memory. And towards the end she could recall with remarkable clarity things that had happened years ago, but she struggled to remember things that had happened yesterday. And I would go and visit her and many days she would be sitting in her chair holding this Bible on her lap, and as we talked, she would be leafing through it’s pages. But she was not looking for scriptures to read. She was looking for her memory. Down through the years she had recorded every important thing that ever happened in our family in that Bible. Birthdays, deaths, graduations – they are all recorded here. And she had clipped things out of the newspaper and placed them in these pages. Wedding announcements, obituaries – they were all there. And there were pictures of loved ones stuck into the pages of the Bible. It was more than her Bible – it was her book of memories. A memorial to a long and wonderful life. And the more she felt her memories slipping away from her, the more she clinged to this Bible. She was holding on to her memories for dear life, because she knew that without those memories there wouldn’t be much of life left. And one of the first things I did after she died was go to Hobby Lobby and buy a glass display case, and I put it on the coffee table in our living room and I put this Bible in it just as she left it, with all of the momentos of her life, as a memorial to her life. Our memories are such an important – no essential – part of who we are. And so we come today to celebrate Memorial Day. It is, of course, the day when we remember those who served our country and made the ultimate sacrifice in doing so – for our nation – for us. In cemeteries all around our country – our world – this weekend, American flags will be placed on the graves of soldiers who died in such service and we will pause to remember. But through the years we have made this day more than that. We have made it a day to remember others – parents, children, friends – who have passed before us. I suspect that before this day, this weekend passes, many here will visit the graves of loved ones and leave flowers or other items to say that you have not forgotten. Today we remember all of those who helped shape us into who we are, as a nation and as individuals. Our memories are the foundation of all that we see, and taste and hear and experience in this life.
And remembering has always been an important element of our faith also. In the book of Joshua, we find the story of the people of Israel, the Jews, completing their long journey from captivity in Egypt to freedom in the land that had been promised to their ancestors. It had been a long journey of many miles and many years. But finally they had arrived at the Jordan river – the boundary between the wilderness behind and the land of milk and honey ahead. And as they camped on the banks of the Jordan, their faith once again began to wane because the river was at flood stage and they saw no way that they could get across. But Joshua said to them, “Have faith. Consecrate (prepare) yourself tonight because tomorrow God will do amazing things among you.” And so the next day, God directed that the priests who were carrying the Ark Of the Covenant (which was considered to be the dwelling place of God) to go into the river before the people and as they stepped into the river the waters parted and the priests were walking on dry ground. God directed them to go and stand in the middle of the river with the Ark and all the people then passed by the Ark on the dry river bed. And Joshua continued the story in this way.
When the whole nation had finished crossing the Jordan, the Lord said to Joshua, “Choose twelve men from among the people, one from each tribe, and tell them to take up twelve stones from the middle of the Jordan, from right where the priests are standing, and carry them over with you and put them down at the place where you stay tonight.”
So Joshua called together the twelve men he had appointed from the Israelites, one from each tribe, and said to them, “Go over before the ark of the Lord your God into the middle of the Jordan. Each of you is to take up a stone on his shoulder, according to the number of the tribes of the Israelites, to serve as a sign among you. In the future, when your children ask you, ‘What do these stones mean?’ tell them that the flow of the Jordan was cut off before the ark of the covenant of the Lord. When it crossed the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. These stones are to be a memorial to the people of Israel forever.”
Those stones were to be a memorial forever. So the people would forever remember what God had done at that place. And the truth is that this was repeated time and again in the history of the Jews. The Holy Land is filled with ancient memorials which commemorate times when God worked miracles on behalf of the people. And those stories always conclude with the instruction to build an altar or a memorial so that the people will never forget what God had done for their ancestors there. Remembering is such an important part of the faith development of the Jewish people. Some of those memorials still exist but by Jesus day, those memorials had evolved into great feasts of remembering and celebration. Passover, Hannukuh, the Festival of Tabernacles, Purim – are all rooted in the collective memories of the people as they recall the times when God interceded on behalf of His people. And, of course, they continue to remember during those festival times even to this day, many centuries after the fact. They pray the prayers, and they speak the words from the Torah that help them remember what a mighty God we have.
This past week we have seen the pictures of President Trump visiting the Western Wall in Jerusalem. When King Herod began the reconstruction of the Temple around 19 B.C. he set out to build the biggest – most spectacular structure ever. And he wanted it to tower above the city of Jerusalem and the land. So he first constructed the Temple Mount which rose some ten stories above the street level and then he built the Temple on top of the Mount. To support all of that he constructed four massive walls and the Western Wall was one of those. It dates back to the time just before the birth of Jesus and has become the second most holy sight in Judaism. Second only to the Temple Mount itself. Of the walls, the Western Wall is the most revered because it was the one that held up the part of the Temple that contained the Holy of Holies – which was believed to be where God dwelt. In 70 A.D., the Romans destroyed the Temple and they expelled the Jews from Jerusalem. But they did not destroy the Temple Mount. And for nearly six centuries, no Jews were allowed in Jerusalem except on one day of the year – a day called Tisha be-Av, which was a day of mourning over the destruction of the Temple. On that day, Jewish pilgrims would gather at the western wall and the priests would read through the book of Lamentations and they would pray and weep over the Temple. And they would remember all the times that God had been with them. Through the centuries it came to be known as the Wailing Wall, though that name is considered to be derogatory by many Jews today.
In modern times, a Mosque was built on the Temple Mount and Jerusalem has been partitioned among the competing political factions and so the Western Wall remains one of the few public places in Jerusalem where the Jews can gather to pray and remember. A sacred memorial to their faith. Remembering has always been a vital part of the faith and life of the Jewish people.
In the aftermath of World War II, as the Allies came upon the Nazi death camps, and the evidences of the atrocities that happened in those places, they also discovered many journals and writings that the Jewish inmates had left which chronicled their plight but also told the story of their enduring faith in the midst of it all. They had kept their faith alive by remembering the stories of how God had always been there for their ancestors, even in the darkest of times. Remembering the Passover, when the Angel of death passed over the Jewish households and they were set free by the Pharoah. And Remembering Hannukah, when the Hasmoneans had liberated the Temple from the Greeks in the second century BC and the Holy Land was free once more. In remembering they found the assurance that God was with them always. Even in that place of death and horror. And as they were taken to the Gas chambers, they sang the songs of lament just as their ancestors had at the Western Wall, all those centuries before. Of course there were many who wanted to completely dismantle the camps, wipe the fact of their existence and the evil that had been done there, from the face of the earth, but other voices, many of them Jewish voices, said “No. They should be preserved as memorials to the people who had died there. As a constant reminder that we must “never forget”. And in the years since, many holocaust memorials have been constructed in Jewish cemeteries all over the world, that carry that same message. This is one such memorial in a cemetery in New Jersey (show picture) and the words read “Remember Not To Forget.” “Remembering Not To Forget” is what we are all about on this Memorial Day.
The early Christians understood the power of memory in our faith experience and began the practice of constructing churches at the sites of many of the important places where God interacted with His people so that the generations that follow could remember what God had done there for His people. There is the church of the Nativity built over the cave that was the place of Jesus’s birth. And the Church of the Holy Sepulchre that contains the tomb of Jesus. St. Peter’s Basilica has within it’s walls the tomb of Peter. The Basilica of St. Paul Beyond The Wall is built at the site of Paul’s tomb. There’s even the church of St. Peter in Gallicantu, which is known as the “rooster crowing church.” All of these constructed so that people of faith would remember what happened there and would “Remember Not To Forget.” And remembering continues to be such an important part of who we are as God’s children. There are memorials all around us. The crosses on our altars. The celebration of the Lord’s supper (Do this in remembrance of Me, Christ said). The rituals we repeat. The hymns we sing. The prayers we pray all help us to remember. Remember what God has done in the lives of our ancestors. We must never forget.
Tony Campolo has gained a reputation as being a contemporary voice of Christianity. He doesn’t always do things and say things in the traditional ways. But whenever a couple comes to him to be married, he will not agree to do it unless they agree to use the traditional wedding vows. And he was asked why he insists on that and he replied because “as the bride and groom recite their vows, every married couple there in the congregation remembers the vows they took and it gives them a chance to reaffirm their commitment along with the bride and groom.”
One preacher says: “Each time the scriptures are read, and the hymns are sung, and the word is preached, every time we worship, we are remembering.” And in those memories we find the faith and the assurance to live in this sometimes harsh world. Remember not to forget.
A preacher once told of visiting the city of Damascus for the first time many years ago and said the first thing he wanted to find was the house of Judas where the blind Paul was taken after he encountered Christ on the road. And so he made his way to the street called Straight and found a house with a plaque identifying it as the house of Judas where Ananias baptized Paul. It had been turned into a chapel. And as he made his way inside he was greeted by a priest who read these words of remembrance from Acts 9: Then Ananias went to the house and entered it. Placing his hands on Saul, he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord – Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here – has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes and he could see again. He got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength.” As the priest read he remembered when he had been touched by Jesus and the scales that had fallen from his eyes. And then the priest said, “all that happened as God planned – on this very spot.” And the preacher said that he was so overwhelmed by it all that he did something he had never done before. Knowing that he was on Holy Ground, he slipped off his shoes and he whispered a prayer: “Lord, you did it once in this place. Do it again and again and again.” Remember not to forget. Because here’s the truth that we need to hear, if we hear nothing else today. We do not remember in order to simply dwell in the past. We remember in order to be empowered to live today and in the days ahead.
In the seventh chapter of I Samuel we find the story of the Israelites defeating the mighty Philistines in battle. As the story unfolds the Israelites are fearful in the face of the Philistine army. They are sure they will suffer defeat and so they cry out to God to deliver them. And as the Philistines advanced, Samuel sacrificed a lamb on the altar and according to the text “the Lord thundered with loud thunder against the Philistines and threw them into a panic and they were routed by the Israelites. And so Samuel took a stone and set it up at the place where the victory had occurred and called it Ebenezer, (the Help Stone), saying, “Thus far the Lord has helped us.” So that the people would see the Ebenezer and Remember Not To Forget.
This altar is our Ebenezer, our help stone, our memorial, set in our midst to remind us that when we come up against barriers in our life that we have a God who still parts the water and let’s us pass on dry land, and that when we face stormy seas, we still have a God who can calm them with the wave of His hand, and when we come up against impossible odds, facing sure defeat, we still have a God who empowers us and wins the victory, and when sin threatens to destroy us, we still have a God who is willing to take ours to the cross for us, and even die our death, That our God raises His Ebenezer in our midst everyday and assures us that He is always with us no matter what may come to us in this world. In the good times and the bad just as he always has. And that people of faith are those who remember not to forget our God no matter what comes to us in this world. So we come today and as we do may we pray, – Lord, you have done it before. Now do it again and again and again.
So come on this Memorial Day remembering not to forget. Amen.