A sermon by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ar., May 26, 2013
Memorial Day Sunday
Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-35; John 16:12-15
My guess is that what is true for me is pretty much the same for you. My memory just isn’t quite as good as it used to be.
I’m not yet as bad as the man who went to see his doctor, complaining of forgetfulness. “I am having trouble remembering much of anything at all,” he said. The doctor asked, “How long have you had this problem?” The man replied, “What problem?”
You know why we joke about it? Because it hurts too much to cry.
The other day I was walking through our den while Janet was watching one of her true-life crime shows. I don’t enjoy these programs like she does. For me, if someone dies on TV, I want it to be fiction… you know what I mean? So, I was doing something else, but as I walked by I caught just enough of it to hear an attorney grilling a witness. And I do mean “grilling.” He was questioning her memory and suggesting that she was less than an ideal witness to what really happened because she couldn’t remember it in perfect detail and full technicolor. As they say in legal terms, he was treating her as a “hostile witness.” In truth, he was the one being hostile. If I had been the other attorney, I would have objected to the line of questioning.
You know why? Because there are days when I can’t even remember my own name but can recall the name of someone I met two weeks ago. That’s why. Memory works like that. It doesn’t always gee-and-haw the way we want it to. It can let us down at the most embarrassing of moments and come through crystal clear when what we manage to remember is the most trivial and worthless of things.
Yet, memory is a wonderful gift from God, that when accepted and used redemptively enables us to live more faithfully to the One who walks beside us and bids us be like him.
Think about this, if you will… memory is not just for remembering the past, it is a wonderful gift that enables us to cope with the present. After all, how would life be now if we didn’t have the benefit of remembering the past? What if you had to start every day from scratch, with no context of your previous experience to guide you? Accompany me on a visit with my mom in the nursing home, and you will see what I mean.
So what I would like to do today, as we anticipate Memorial Day, is to encourage you to use your gift of remembering while you still can, so it will hold you in good stead as you continue in your faith journey.
I will remind you – after all, my memory isn’t that bad; not yet anyway – that our morning lesson from the New Testament is found in the sixteenth chapter of John’s gospel. A little context, if you please…
Just prior to the festival of the Passover, which would be the last Passover Jesus and his disciples would share together, they have come to the upper room. Against their protests, Jesus has washed the feet of his followers. And once having dipped his bread in the same cup as his Lord, identifying who the betrayer would be, Judas has left them to go and do his evil deed. In the face of what everyone knew Judas was doing, Simon Peter has professed his loyalty to his Master and Jesus has told him that his willingness, his want-to, is greater than his ability to follow through and live out what he thinks he can do. In other words, he, Simon, will also deny his Master.
The gathering started with anger and suspicion, and has now worked its way into a discussion of betrayal and denial. Are you starting to get the idea that this is not exactly the jolliest of times for Jesus and his disciples?
John, the gospel writer, then records a long discourse by Jesus wherein he explains to them how things are going to be. In reflecting on this portion of John’s gospel, the late John Claypool says that Jesus “valiantly” tried to prepare them for the coming crisis,1 and he starts by telling them of his absence. He is going to leave them. “And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.”
From anger to betrayal, from betrayal to absence. Add it all up and what you have is a terrible combination… except, Jesus also moves from talking about his impending absence to the promise of his Spirit. The problem is, the disciples, fuming in their anger and betrayal, hear only the part about absence. They do not hear his promise.
It’s hard to blame them, really. No doubt, we would have done the very same thing.
The air in the room becomes quite heavy, not unlike around here this past week or so when the humidity decided it wanted to go to much higher levels than we had been having. Except, this isn’t a meteorological happening. Jesus’ words are heavy and foreboding, filling the air in the room with all manner of anxiousness. They are hard for the disciples to take, much less understand, because he is informing them that he is leaving them. Jesus senses the mood in the room and says to them, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.”
I’ll say. There simply come those times when it’s hard for us – for any of us – to bear whatever is happening to us. This is such a time for Jesus’ disciples. So what he is doing, essentially, is telling them they will soon be left with nothing but their memories of him.
But don’t forget the promise he makes. Even if they don’t hear him say it, we must. Jesus will send his Spirit to guide them in knowing all the things they will need to do. Is that not what memories are… the encouragement we need to continue in the faith when times are difficult?
Think of the one person who meant more to you than anyone else, someone who is now gone from this life, and isn’t it true that this person’s memory abides with you every day? You may be doing something really mundane, like cleaning house or cutting the grass, reading the newspaper or sitting on your back porch listening to the birds sing and the bees buzz. And suddenly, there is this overwhelming presence, sometimes enough to give you goose bumps. Your loved one’s face comes to you, or maybe her voice, or perhaps his scent. It’s as if he or she is sitting right next to you.
Jesus is saying that is how it will be for his followers. When they need him – really, really need him – his Spirit will be there, guiding and shaping all they say and do. It is a powerful, powerful thing when memory and Spirit come together.
Frederick Buechner ties memory and hope together. He says that hope stands up to its knees in the past and keeps its eyes on the future.2 He continues…
“Remember the wonderful works that he has done,” goes David’s song – remember what he has done in the lives of each of us; and beyond that remember what he has done in the life of the world; remember above all what he has done in Christ – remember those moments in our own lives when with only the dullest understanding but with the sharpest longing we have glimpsed that Christ’s kind of life is the only life that matters and that all other kinds of life are riddled with death; remember those moments in our lives when Christ came to us in countless disguises through people who one way or another strengthened us, comforted us, healed us, judged us, by the power of Christ alive within them. All that is the past. All that is what there is to remember. And because that is the past, because we remember, we have this high and holy hope: that what he has done, he will continue to do, that what he has begun in us and our world, he will in unimaginable ways bring to fullness and fruition.3
Last Sunday, our congregation approved the recommendation that we make some improvements around here as we continue through our Centennial year. Not all of you voted for it, but enough of you did that we are proceeding with it. That is, after all, the way we Baptists conduct our business. It is not the end of the projects we foresee for our facilities, but it is a good beginning. Our hope is to have this portion of our renovation completed by the end of August when we will celebrate our reunion weekend.
Are we making these improvements to impress those who will be coming back to be with us for that weekend? Yes… and no. We do indeed want our guests to understand that we consider God’s house to be important enough that we want it to look as nice as possible when they come to visit. But we are doing it also for the little children who climb those steps every week to listen to Melanie and Beth and Kathryn and Leann and Glynda tell them a sermon that is meant just for them, and who will continue to grow up in this church and, we hope, will be the leaders of this church some day. We do it for those who have yet to come and be a part of this fellowship, who will find in this congregation the people they want to journey with in their pilgrimage with Christ.
We take what has been done in the past, and remember gratefully the sacrifices of those who have come before us to make this church what it has been, and we seek to build on it for the present and the future. There is both a past and future orientation to what we do, not only in the refurbishing of our church facilities but also in our desire to reach others for Christ. If we do not use our memories for building on the future, we do not take seriously what it means to follow the One who has brought us to this place, and we forfeit a very important reason for our being here at all.
The Bible talks a great deal about remembering. Central to the Jewish faith were the festivals where people came together and recalled God’s many acts of providence in their collective history. Jesus encouraged his disciples to remember, most notably in the upper room when he took the bread and the cup and encouraged them, whenever they lifted them to their lips, to remember that he would be with them.
That promise is built on the sacrifice God has already made, a sacrifice we remember every time we come together for worship, a promise we must leave those who follow us.
Fred Craddock talks about memory. “Remember the good times,” he says. “Remember the close occasions. Remember the profound worship. Remember the Lord’s Table. Remember your baptism. Remember the bread and the cup. Remember your Christian friends. Remember the old songs, and you will get through. It just hurts me to think of the young people who do not know a hymn, who do not know a single scripture verse, and who have never sat next to the strong shoulder of a believing man or woman. How will they ever make it? You see, what we do here on Sunday, in case you’re wondering, is that we are making memories. What happens today will be the only food you will have one of these days. But it will be enough. It will be enough.”4
A vital part of our collective faith as a congregation of believers is the making of memories for those who follow us. How, indeed, will we be remembered? I encourage you to ask that question of yourself over and over as you journey through the faith with these people who share these pews with you. It is then in the answer you find that memories in this place will indeed be made.
Our memories are precious indeed, O Lord. Help us to remember and then forge faithfully into the future, trusting your Spirit to be our guide. Through Christ our Lord we pray, Amen.
1John Claypool, “The Power of Memory,” unpublished sermon, June 23, 1974.
2Frederick Buechner, A Room Called Remember (San Francisco: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1984), pp. 11-12.
4Fred B. Craddock, Cherry Log Sermons (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), p. 59.