Memory and Loss

The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost
November 13, 2022
Psalm 98

Forgetfulness. It’s a terrifying proposition. That as we age, the threat of dementia and Alzheimer’s lingers. I witnessed three of my four grandparents walk that odious path. My grandmother couldn’t remember if she had turned off the stove. I would have the same conversation with grandfather over and over again. Many of you had walked that same difficult road. It’s hard on us because it is both aggravating and heart-breaking to watch the people we knew disappear before our very eyes. And I think it’s hard on those afflicted with these conditions because they sense our frustration and despair. Forgetfulness claims many casualties.

And like I said, that threat lingers. I wonder for myself, will I succumb to it? Will I forget the sound of my wife’s voice? Will I forget what my own daughter looks like? Will I forget how to stand here and do the only thing I know how to do? Is that coming for me?

And not only that, we fear being forgotten. Is it not obvious? Look around at all the names and inscriptions in these windows, walk through Eaton Hall and read those plaques. All that money, all that work, so that we would be remembered.

But we all know, deep down, that eventually we will all be forgotten. Whether our name vanishes after just a generation or whether our name is known for centuries after us, it is all fleeting. One day the Sun will expand and consume the Earth, turning everything we have ever known, seen, or heard into cosmic ash. And eventually all will be lost to the cold oblivion of the infinite.

I know, not a cheery way to start a sermon. But I’ve simply been reflecting, chewing upon these scripture lessons. Malachi warns us that the arrogant and evildoers will be burned as stubble in the oven. Jesus warns the disciples that even the great Temple, that magnificent structure that towers over Jerusalem, that stands at the center of their lives, even that will be torn down. Nation will rise against nation and they will fall. Even your parents and brothers will betray you, even the relationships you once knew will vanish into thin air. All that we once knew and trusted in will be washed away. See, it’s not me who made this up. It’s Jesus. And you’re the ones who decided to come to church this morning and hear what he had to say.

But of course, that’s not all the Bible has to say. I’ve also been going back to this psalm. “He remembers his mercy and faithfulness to the house of Israel” (Psalm 98:4a). God remembers. Think on that for a moment. Because of time, or disease, or death, we will all forget; even what we hold most dear. We’ll forget the taste of our favorite foods, we’ll forget the sound of our favorite song, we’ll forget the sweet caress on the hand of our beloved. And again, because of time, disease, or death, we will be forgotten. Though I loved my grandparents dearly, my own memory of the sound of their voice, the image of their face, is beginning to fade. Forgetfulness comes even for the still not so old. 

And then Psalm 98 stands out like a thunderclap, “[The Lord God] remembers his mercy and faithfulness to the house of Israel.” God’s mind, if that is even the right term for it, does not suffer decay. The Lord God remembers. And God is not bound to time. We can dig in here theologically. I believe that God stands outside of time as we humans experience it. We experience time as the succession of moment after another. We think of time going off into everlasting. Day follows day, week follows week, year follows year. Plus, that’s how we remember. We’re making plans for Thanksgiving this year and trying to remember what we did for Thanksgiving last year. This year Christmas Eve is on a Saturday and Christmas Day on a Sunday, and every priest and organist remembers what a grind that is. 

But not so with God. God stands outside of time. I believe that God can see every moment of time at the same time because God stands outside of time. This is what we mean when we say that God is eternal. Not that God lives forever, that’s a given. But rather that God is the fullness of time, that God created time and can stand outside of it. I don’t want to push the metaphor too far, but think of a little boy who is playing with his little green army men. At one moment, that boy is one of their little green army men, desperately fighting the Battle of the Bulge; in the next moment, at the behest of a parent, that same little boy is picking up the army men and putting them into a shoebox. That child is both within and outside of that world he created. And yes, if you’re wandering, that’s how I remember playing with my army men. 

So God remembers because God is outside of time. God is not bound to human limits. Great. But that doesn’t mean much until we figure out what it is exactly that God remembers. “He remembers his mercy and faithfulness to the house of Israel” (Psalm 98:4a). God has a good memory, and God remembers the good things, mercy and faithfulness. Again, Psalm 98 is a thunderclap. You and I, we remember all the bad things. We keep a scorecard of them. We remember how poorly that person sings at church so we sit on the other side of the aisle; we remember how annoying it can be living here during biker weekend; we remember the terrible food poisoning we got from that restaurant; we remember that one off-hand comment the priest gave during a sermon and hold on to that as a grudge. Yes, again, those are my memories. I hold on to them, feed them, keep them, so that I can go back to them whenever I need a dose of resentment.

But God remembers his mercy and faithfulness. God remembers to be kind, even when we are crude. God remembers to be faithful, even when we are faithless. God has a good memory, and God’s memories are good.

Hopefully you can see that this sermon is a reflection on my life with God. Welcome to the inner workings of my heart and brain. When I get down about the human condition, I try to take confidence in God. When I start replaying all those bad memories, I try to remember the good ones instead. And when I forget the good things I don’t want to have forgotten, I trust that God remembers them for me.

Most of all, this is a sermon about God. About who God is. And that, to me, is much more interesting that any little quips I can come up with. Who is God? God is the One who remembers his mercy and faithfulness to the house of Israel. The house of Israel was once enslaved in Egypt, they had forgotten what it was like to be free, and yet God remembered his promise of mercy and set them free. The house of Israel was exiled in Babylon had forgotten what it was like to live in their home, in Jerusalem, but God remembered and sent them home again. I would imagine that on that first Easter morning, Mary Magdalene’s memory of Jesus was already beginning to fade. The sound of his voice, a little fuzzier. The image of his face, a little blurrier. And yet God remembers his mercy and faithfulness and Jesus was raised from the dead. This sermon is trying to answer that impossible question. Who is God? God is the One who has a good memory, and who remembers the good things. 

And hopefully this sermon will have made life a little less terrifying. Even as your memory of your loved ones fade, and as their memory of you fades, God has not forgotten. And still, God chooses to love you, because “He remembers his mercy and faithfulness to the house of Israel” (Psalm 98:4a).

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