Sunday, May 27, 2012

To Be Remembered

To Be Remembered
Psalm 98

Pentecost Day, Memorial Day weekend: May 27, 2012

He has remembered his steadfast love and faithfulness

T.S. Eliot once wrote,
Midnight shakes the memory
As a madman shakes a dead geranium.[1]
Well, I’ve had nights like that, who hasn’t? On Memorial Day each year I am reminded  that memory is an odd thing. It is one of those words which can be taken in positive or negative ways. Bitter memories stack up right alongside sweet ones.
Cyril Connolly, British editor, book reviewer and author, wrote in 1944, “Our memories are card-indexes consulted, and then put back in disorder by authorities whom we do not control.”[2]
We may carry lifetime recollections of bitter arguments lost, deep disappointments suffered, betrayals endured. Robert Burns once wrote of an unhappy spouse who waited at home,
Gathering her brows like a gathering storm
Nursing her wrath to keep it warm.[3]
When I was in graduate school, taking courses in counseling, I remember hearing the term “injustice collecting,” a phrase which serves to remind us that sometimes we enjoy our bitter memories perhaps a little more than we should, saving them up to use like weapons when the time is right – or wrong. The lighthearted side of this was made into a song by Alan Jay Lerner:
We met at nine
We met at eight
I was on time
No, you were late
Ah yes! I remember it well.[4]
On the positive capacity of remembrance, J.M. Barrie made the lovely observation that “God gave us memory so that we might have roses in December.”[5]
Of course, memory can inform the present, for good or ill, yet it can also freeze us in the past. We all probably know someone not living in the present because they are trapped by powerful memories, locked in a never-ending past, which no one around them shares. This kind of attachment to memory can cripple and stunt our ability to live today and hope for tomorrow.
I have a friend whose family tradition with his children included rehearsals of the importance of remembering. When one prepared to go out for the day or for the evening, they would recite their little admonition to them, “Remember who you are.” The remembrance was to be of the sort of family they were, the sort of values they cherished, a way for young people to face the compromising values of the world from a solid perspective provided in their home. Of course, the admonition was often met with dismissal when the youngsters were adolescents. But then, when one had returned from college and his father was preparing to leave for the day for meetings in Portland, his son came to him as he got in his car and counseled him to “remember who you are.” The father was delighted. After all these years, this son was now taking part, laying claim to these common family values and even encouraging his father with them. But wait, not so fast. It turned out his son was referring to another kind of remembering. “No, Dad, I mean it literally: remember who you are. You’re getting older, your memory isn’t what it used to be, and in a strange town, you might forget who you are!”
Typically, a day set aside for memorials, for remembering, the way Memorial Day is set aside tomorrow, such a day is a time we may recall family and friends who have died. And rightly so. It is good to remember, good to reflect on ways that the lives of others, now spent, have affected our lives and still impact the world we know.
The Memorial Day we know started in 1869 as a day to honor the Civil War dead, and has been associated with such honors for war dead ever since. Beyond that, however, most of us also find ourselves remembering all the folks who have preceded us in death, friends and family members, whether they died in war or not. For centuries, the church had its own memorial day, a day called “All Saints Day.” It still rates a mention on many calendars, but it has been all but obliterated in our culture by the rather silly and originally beside-the-point night before All Saints, All Hallows Eve, now known by its shorthand moniker, Halloween.
Still, remembering, making memorials to those who have gone before, is something the church has done since the beginning, from the celebration of the “great cloud of witnesses” in the letter to the Hebrews, to the host of white-robed saints of Revelation who sing their eternal praises before the throne of God (Revelation 7:11-12).
Remembering is an honorable thing. The Bible calls us to be a people of remembrance. Words for remembering are used over 320 times in scripture. For example:
·  Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy. (Exodus 20:8)
·  Remember that you were a slave in Egypt (Deuteronomy 16:20 — there are many repetitions of this particular reminder!)
·  Remember the wonderful works [God] has done... (Psalm 105:5)
·  Remember [God’s] covenant forever...(I Chronicles 16:15)
·  Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead (2 Timothy 2:8)
·  Then Peter remembered the word of the Lord (Luke 22:61)
These selections bring to mind our calling to be a remembering people. But there are as many, if not more occasions in scripture, when God is asked to remember who he is or who we are:
·  Remember your congregation, which you acquired long ago (Psalm 74:2)
·  Remember, O Lord, how your servant is taunted (Psalm 89:50)
Memory functions in scripture in the variety of ways that it functions in our own lives.
Still, see if you don’t agree that the remembrance to which the psalmist refers in our passage today is almost startling when we think more intentionally about it: “[God] has remembered his steadfast love and faithfulness.” God has remembered? Would God have forgotten? Does God remember who he is? Probably one of the most celebrated qualities of God in scripture is the love of God, and not just God’s love, but God’s steadfast love. It is a love that not only lasts, but outlasts. Is our own love of God a fickle thing, a sometime thing? Never mind, remember that God’s love is a steadfast love, a love that stays with its loving task no matter what.
Psalm 98 counsels Israel to “sing to the Lord a new song,” because “he has remembered his steadfast love and faithfulness to the house of Israel.” It ends by declaring that the floods should clap their hands and the hills should sing together for joy because God “is coming to judge the earth.” It is a stewardship song for the whole earth, returning to God the praise which is his due.
Does that sound jarring to you, that God remembers who he is, and that the whole creation should rejoice because God’s judgment is coming? God’s steadfast love stays with its loving task, no matter what, that is why we may rejoice even in the midst of his judgment. God judges not with an eye to vengeance and recrimination but to his promise. God’s steadfast reliability isn’t based in a naiveté about the people, whether the people are ancient Israelites or the people seated in this sanctuary. God can look unblinkingly at all our past failures and shortcomings, and God’s steadfast faithfulness simply overpowers them, assuring us that hope of a return to relationship with him is not a vain hope. That is why we, along with all creation, may sing a new song of joy when we declare that God remembers who he is.
What a gift God's remembering is. Can you think of a time when you’ve been forgotten, and how much that can hurt? As a child, were you ever left, forgotten at school, perhaps each parent thinking the other was coming for you? Since God doesn’t ever forget who he is, he cannot forget who we are either. God has had us in mind all along, and here we are. In God’s remembering of his steadfast love and faithfulness, there stands the object of his love, undeserving, soiled, lapsed in both steadfast love and faithfulness, yet loved nonetheless by the One who remembers.
The remembering God.
God remembers it all, doesn’t miss a thing, washes it in the cleansing power of his judgment, and renders it fit for a future in his presence.
While there is to be judgment, the fact that God remembers who he is, is among the best news we could have hoped for. No wonder the psalmist instructs us to sing a new song, to make a joyful noise, to break into joy-filled song and sing praises. No wonder. Because of the wonder that is a God of love. And memory.

Copyright © 2012 Robert J. Elder, Pastor

[1] “Rhapsody on a Windy Night,” T.S. Eliot, 1917.
[2] The Unquiet Grave, Cyril Connolly, 1944.
[3] “Tam o’ Shanter,”The Complete Poems and Songs of Robert Burns, Waverly Books Ltd.
[4] “I Remember It Well,” Alan Jay Lerner, Gigi, 1958.
[5] Rectorial Address at St. Andrew’s, J.M. Barrie, May 3, 1922.