Sermon: Memories that Matter

[Sermon givenon Sunday, March 13, 2016 (Lent V at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church– Kansas City, MO by the Rev’d. Fr. Marcus G. Halley]

“Do not remember the former things,
or consider the things of old.
I am about to do a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
and rivers in the desert.”

Isaiah 43.18,19 (NRSV)

Grace and peace be unto you from G-d our Father, from Jesus Christ our Risen Lord and Reigning Savior, and from the Holy Spirit who empowers and enlivens our time together.

I am a storyteller and one of the facets of priesthood that I love is the part where I get to tell stories, not just my stories, but our stories. I get to tell the stories of the Church passed down through countless generations for hundreds of years, stories that help us to know both who and whose we are in a world hell-bent on redefining us. Therefore, this morning I would like to share a few personal stories to illustrate what I am referring to as “memories that matter.”

I would like to begin by sharing with you the story of man on a journey. For as far back as I can remember I have been a man on the move. To date I have never lived at one address for more than 5 years. I was born in Massachusetts in 1986 and almost immediately my parents, my older brother, and I moved to New Jersey where we would live for a few years before moving thousands of miles away to Hawai’i.

I know, tough life, right?

My first memories where of Hawai’i, memories of walking to Waikiki Beach with my grandmother, climbing Diamond Head with my family, the pig roast and luau thrown by our neighbors down the street, and the giant cactus behind our house that scared me to death. I remember the banana tree that grew right outside of our home and my best friend, Jimmy, who would entertain my six-year-old fantasies of being a tiny prince ruling a beachside kingdom where ice cream was free to any and everyone who wanted it.

A few years after moving to Hawai’i, I would abdicate the throne of my beachside kingdom and we would move back to New Jersey in the dead middle of winter. I remember it vividly because that was my first memory of snow. While not being tropical, New Jersey did have some good memories too, memories of being close to family, Sunday dinners at my grandmother’s house, summers spent playing with my cousins in the park up the street, and visiting my great aunt’s house where the pristine, all-white furniture seemed to dare us kids to play in her living room. I remember sneaking Snapples and Pepsis from the grandmother’s refrigerator and her waking up and telling us to “go back to bed.” To us that woman never seemed to sleep.

All told, I simply remember the warm, protective cocoon given to me by my family, a cocoon of intrinsic self-worth, deep and abiding love, and a fierce determination.

As a black boy growing up in America, I would need that cocoon. Growing up all the popular images of black men in the media fit into a very few categories: jail, drugs, or entertainment. If I had believed those images, I would have believed that my lot in life was to follow a narrow, predetermined path. But my family taught me a more excellent way. Though imperfect and flawed as any other family, they taught me other ways of being black in the world – black writers and doctors, lawyers and engineers, teachers and pastors, black people that could be and do anything they set their minds to. That was our stock, a people who had overcome tremendous odds, a family that left a cotton plantation in Camden, South Carolina to create a better life.

Now, to be fair, we were as normal as any other family – we had our problems. We had our fair share of heartache and grief, brokenness and hurt, strained relationships and disappointments but somehow we managed to stay together. All of those memories – the good, the bad, and the ugly – matter.

So, when I initially read the words attributed to Isaiah, I must admit I had to wrestle a bit. I heard them from a particular perspective and I pushed them away as untrue. Let me give a little bit of context. After generations of foreign invasion, political upheaval, social unrest, religious anxiety, and exile the prophet tells the people:

Do not remember the former things,
or consider the things of old.
I (YHWH) am about to do a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
and rivers in the desert.

These words are poetic for sure; but, what does the prophet mean by “do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old?” Our stories, no matter how difficult or challenging, inform us, they help to us who we are. How can we know where we are going, collectively or individually, unless we remember where we have been? The “former things” may not be pleasant, but we must carry them with us or we are doomed to repeat them.

Reflecting on problematic depictions of Africa throughout much of the western world, Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie cautions against what she calls “the danger of a single story.” Single stories, isolated narratives, flatten our experiences in the world and deny key parts of who we are. “The single story creates stereotypes,” she says, “and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” When what have been told about others and ourselves fails to leave room for the addition of new experiences, new learning, new perspectives, other people, even we ourselves, become, in the words of African American writer Audre Lourde, “crunched into other people’s fantasies… and eaten alive.”

When I first read the words attributed to the prophet Isaiah, I was struck by what I read as an insistence on a single story, as an erasure of a major cultural experience of exile, of a denial of a defining moment in Jewish history.

But maybe that’s what grief and shame invite, erasure. It’s easy to pretend as if hardship never happened, like we never messed up, like every moment of our lives has been sunshine. And that works up until the rain comes. The Jewish people who had suffered under Babylonian rule interpreted their defeat as a judgment from YHWH because of their collective refusal to abide by the covenant. The deep pain brought about by this event presented an easy solution – let’s just pretend like it didn’t happen. Let’s hear G-d’s promise to save us. Let’s renew our commitment to following G-d as if these past few years never occured.

The truth is that this type of spirituality is very popular. It sells so many books. It fills so many churches and houses of worship. So many live under the fantasy of the pursuit of happiness but not many know how to navigate the disappointments of life.  Barbara Brown Taylor calls this type of spirituality “full solar spirituality, since it focuses on staying in the light of God around the clock, both absorbing and reflecting the sunny side of faith.”[1] “Full solar spirituality” works so long as everything goes according to plan, so long as we can follow a pre-determined formula, so long as we can just try harder and everything will be alright. But what do we do when we mess up? When we fall into sin? When we are hit with a frightening diagnosis a job loss? When we run into something horrible that we cannot control or “try” our way out of? What do we do with our “full solar spirituality” when we enter the dark?

We remember.

You see, dear friends, when I peeled back my own “stuff,” I found that this is what the prophet is saying to the people, albeit in coded language. In mentioning the “way in the sea” and the “path in the mighty waters” and the “way” and the “water” “…in the wilderness” and the “rivers in the desert,” the prophet was speaking to their communal history, to THE defining moment in their heritage, the moment in time all Jewish time springs from – to the story of the Exodus, G-d victory of hard hearts and hard labor. Here, the prophet is highlighting their history and pointing THE memory that matter. The prophet was not advocating for erasure, but for perspective. “We have been here before,” says the prophet, “and we know what G-d can do.”

So, when the shades of night begin to fall in our lives, remember G-d with whom “darkness and light are both alike.”[2]

When the night comes, remember G-d whose faithfulness is not contingent upon sunny days, but who is able to speak to tumultuous seas saying “Peace! Be Still!”

When we enter the long darkness, remember G-d who left the celestial brightness of Heaven to come into the world. For each of us, G-d in the flesh, Jesus, lived among us and showed G-d’s love; for us he suffered the darkness of Calvary and cried at the last “it is accomplished”; and for us he triumphed over death and rose in newness of life; for us he ascended to reign at G-d’s right hand.[3]

When the night comes, remember that story. Remember the story of a G-d whose love for us was so great and compassion so large that G-d came into our darkness to raise us to newness of life. Remember the story of a G-d who thought we were worth saving so G-d came to change our lives, who thought were to die for, so G-d did, and triumphed over death so that we didn’t have to fair the dark. Remember a G-d who never cursed the darkness, but flung the light against the night sky, spangling it with countless stars, and called it “good.”

That is a memory that matters. That is a memory that holds us in the dark. That is a memory that promises to cradle us in the midst of a world gone mad. It is a memory that holds both our sunshine and our darkness in the Risen Life of Christ.

That’s why Easter needs Lent, because we need perspective, because lilies need ash, because celebration needs reflection, because bells need silence, because perfume needs tears, because we spend our lives journeying between these two spaces and we need to know that G-d is there with us, both on the mountain and in the valley and everywhere in between. We need to hear that story because it is ours. Because we need to know this too shall pass.

I am a storyteller, but:

The love of God is greater far
Than tongue or pen can ever tell.
It goes beyond the highest star
And reaches to the lowest hell.

That is a life-changing story and that is a memory that matters.


[1] Barbara Brown Taylor. Learning to Walk in the Dark.

[2] “Psalm 139.11, BCP, 794.

[3] Paraphrase Church of Scotland Book of Common Order.

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