Sunday, November 29, 2009

God, Remember Me

God Remember Me
(But only the Good Parts!)

© copyright 2009 Robert J. Elder
Sunday, November 28, 2009

Psalm 25:1-10
Luke 1:26-38

Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions;
according to your steadfast love remember me,
for your goodness’ sake, O LORD!

Do not remember me for that, Lord. Please remember me for this. Don’t recall my youthful indiscretions, instead, remember me for your goodness sake, for the way in which I have reflected your goodness and love. I have a friend who read this psalm once and remarked, “Would that the sins of our youth were the only sins that were remembered.”

Maybe that is why God chose a youth named Mary to carry forward the promise of God in human form in the person of her son, Jesus.

If we could be the author of our own remembrances in the minds of others, and especially in the mind of God, how would those remembrances look? The psalmist prays to be remembered for the ways that his life was a reflection of the perfect goodness of God. Implicit is his recognition that we cannot be the author of goodness, but that God creates a standard for goodness in the world that we can hope to reveal in our own living.

The sins of our youth, of our middle and old age, the collected memories of things that make us wake in the night, in the middle of the hour of the wolf, these things the psalmist — all of us — hope that God will overlook somehow.

I remember an old college acquaintance — a fraternity brother — that I ran into at a reunion a number of years ago. When I saw him he recognized me and his face turned a bit ashen. He held by then an important judicial position, but he knew I remembered him as an underclassman whose hair was grown to his shoulders and who was very much into the late 1960s experimentation with marijuana. Today he is a silver-haired prominent political figure. I bet he wishes to God every night that people have forgotten the sins of his youth. I don’t judge him today for what went on 40 years ago, but I wonder if he has been relieved of his own self-judging memories. I wonder if any of us have.

Almost any time I have the opportunity to connect with friends from my college fraternity days, there is a comment that I just wait for along the lines of, “Rob, when I remember all our college times, I still for the life of me just can’t believe you are a pastor.” Oh that God, and everyone else, would forget the sins of my youth.

When I was a graduate student, it seemed always to be the case that the people in the classroom or in the coffee conversation at the coffee shop who ranted and raved about this or that fundamentalist were themselves former fundamentalists, trying to outdistance themselves from their own past, and not succeeding well because they protested too much. The ranting was against themselves, chasing at ghosts of the sins of youth.

We may have awards, medals, certificates honoring us for this or that good work, prizes, pictures to recall the good memories we like to bring to mind. But what wakes us in a blur of apprehension the middle of the night are memories we would just as soon forget, anxieties, relationships with people long dead, insoluble problems that we can keep at a distance in our waking hours, but which can creep closer to our consciousness when we sleep, when our guard is down.

Oh it would be good if we could recall only the good things in our lives, and we hope God will do the same. We join the psalmist in his chorus: “Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions.”

Never mind asking God not to remember the sins of our youth, would to God that we could forget them. But we can’t. And so we can turn to them and use them as the teacher they can be for us.

Henri Nouwen once declared that to try to bury our past is to turn our backs on our best teacher. Our past is never finished with us, not fully. Go to a therapist, often one of the first questions that will come along will be, “Tell me about your relationship with your mother...or father.” Some things buried deep within us continue to shape us even if it is no longer in a healthy way, until we can bring them to the surface and decide to live in a new way.

Tony Campolo is a preacher I admire. “He’s a liberal Italian Baptist evangelical, a combination that defies all the odds,” as one of my ministry friends once said.[1] In a sermon he preached at Duke Chapel a few years ago, he told this story.

“I went to Eastern College as an undergraduate,’ he writes, “and I had an English teacher and I came into class late. I had just settled down when the professor, Dr. Ingles, called on me to pray – it’s a church-related college and we do that. He said, ‘Mr. Campolo, would you lead us in prayer?’ And so I started praying. And I said, ‘Good God, we thank you for this day and all Thy blessings to us. I thank you that You love us all. I’m grateful that You love me in spite of the fact that I am so worthless.’” At that, Campolo said Dr. Ingles interrupted him, “’Just a minute, just a minute… Mr. Campolo, you are not worthless. You are so precious that if you were the only person who ever lived, Jesus would have died just for you. That’s how precious you are. The word you should have used was unworthy…’”

One bright day when, as tradition declares, young Mary was reading quietly at her desk, the angel Gabriel came to inform her that she had been chosen by God to bear the Messiah. “How can this be?” wondered Mary.

One way to approach an answer to Mary’s question to the angel — and a good many of the deeper questions of our own lives — is to remember who the story is about. Did you ever think about the fact that the story of our own lives, with all the experiences we have collected over time, that in each and every circumstance including this one as we gather here today, the story is really not about you or me? Our purpose for being, our birth, our lives, our traumas, our memories, all are only secondarily about us. I believe that in this story from the Bible, as in the sweep of the stories of our lives, the story is about God and what God is doing or working through us to do.

In the end, the prayer of the psalm and the story of Mary are not about our remembered sins or angels who visit in the night, they are about God and the purposes of God. The reason we remember Mary’s story so well is her spectacular response. I heard someone ask once, “I wonder how many other stops Gabriel made that day before he found a young girl who would say yes.” We’ll never know if there is an answer to that question, because the Bible is only interested in the question of Mary, and her answer.

Next week we will approach the table of our Lord, the second Sunday in this season called Advent, a season which very much looks ahead and might seem not to be too concerned with what lies in the past. But then we take a good hard look and see that Jesus came to people who were trapped by their past, who could only think of the world in ways they had thought of it before. When we come to the table of grace, we discover that the host we may expect to find at the table is some long dead teacher from the first century, but every now and then, we eat the bread, we drink the cup and we have the insight to see that the Savior who lives is suddenly among us and within us. The supper of the Lord is not about us, it is about the coming reign and rule of Christ. The Savior whose blood was shed is no longer bleeding but lives so that the sins of our youth, middle and old age are not erased but are seen not to matter any more at all.

No wonder Mary was able to say, “Let it be to me according to your word.” By the power of the same God, we can say it too.

Copyright © 2009 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

[1] Michael Lindvall, in his sermon “In Spite of Ourselves,” Preached at Brick Presbyterian Church in New York City, 12-8-2005.