Wednesday, March 22, 2017

We Were There

Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

As a kid, I loved looking through my parents' wedding photos. They were kept in a sort of commemorative book that was left on a shelf in the hall. Every now and then, I would pull the book out and stare at the men with their moustaches and women with their long, flowing, rosy pink gowns. My parents looked funny--so young and skinny. My grandparents, too, looked younger than I had ever imagined them. I would look at those pictures and imagine what the wedding was like--a sort of fairy tale preserved in pictures.

The other day, on a drive back from Birmingham, my kids started asking Elizabeth about our wedding. We were highly disappointed with our wedding photographer, so I don't think my kids have ever seen any images from that day. But somehow the concept of our wedding came up, and they all started asking questions about who was there and what were they wearing and what was the food like and were there any funny moments. I wasn't in the car, but, when they got home and Elizabeth told me about the conversation, it made me want to participate, recollecting my own experience of that day. My children had much the same experience that I had had, exploring a fascinating moment from the past as if it were a myth to be encountered rather than a day to be remembered.

It's funny how such clear and definite moments from our past, which we remember vividly, become less than real to those who did not experience them firsthand. The Great Depression, Pearl Harbor, Kennedy's Assassination, the Challenger Explosion, September 11. If we only read about them in history books, we run the risk of losing touch with the real experience--what it felt like to be there, to see it, to know the emotion of those moments. We need to hear from someone who can give context to the event. We want to hear their words about what that day was like. Without their personal stories, we cannot remember the past in the sense of re-membering or re-embodying it. We can only learn about it the way a student learns a history lesson, studying facts to be regurgitated on a test.

That was Moses' concern in Deuteronomy 4. "We have this incredible law," he told God's people. "When the people in the land where we are going see us and our law and how we live with it at the center of our lives, they will say to themselves, 'What a wonderful people! See how they live so close to their god! No one has a god as close to them as the people of Israel!'" But Moses knew that memories fade. He knew that, within a generation or two, the people who had been there when God had come down to Mt. Sinai and appeared to Moses and spoke to God's people in fire and cloud, would die. And then who would remember why those laws were given in the first place? Who would recall that the law and the proximity that it gave to God's people were unique? Who would be there to teach the people that the law was not merely a set of rules to be followed but an opportunity to live in covenant relationship with the creator of all things?

"Be careful," Moses said, "not to forget the things that your eyes have seen nor let them slip from your mind all the days of your life. Make them known to your children and your children's children." You were there, Moses reminded God's people. Do not forget what it was like to see the fire and hear the voice that spoke to you out of the flame. You cannot see the Lord. He will not come and tap you on the shoulder and remind you why all of these things are important. You must remember. You must relive that day. You must tell it to your children and grandchildren so that our people can remember--can relive--what it means to belong to God and never forget that we are God's people.

Somehow, as the sound of racing footsteps up and down the hall testifies, when I tell my children to brush their teeth, by the time they've walked upstairs, they've forgotten all about it. When they hear my footsteps coming up the steps, they remember and scurry into the bathroom, where they pretend to have been brushing their teeth all along. Mt. Sinai was a long, long time ago. And God's footsteps are a lot harder to hear than those of an angry father. How will we remember?

Immerse yourself in the stories of God's people. Read the words of scripture--words written not only to recall the events but also the emotion, the terror, and the awe of it all. Share the stories with each other. Seek out those who know them well, and learn from them. Participate in the active remembrances by going to a Seder meal, celebrating Sukkoth, or keeping the sabbath. Jesus said, "Not one stroke of one letter of the law will pass away from the law until all things are accomplished" (Matthew 5:17-19). In Jesus, we may have found the fulfillment of our relationship with God, but we cannot afford to forget God's dealings with God's people. We must tell the stories until we find ourselves there in the wilderness, preparing to enter the Promised Land. We must teach them to our children and our children's children so that we will never forget what it means to belong to God.

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