Remembering Who(se) We Are
Acts 8:26-40 As we move closer to our 60th Anniversary celebration, we are remembering stories and events from years past. In a few weeks, we are going to post some of those on the church website, kind of an OPC Story Corps.
But why is it that we remember? We honor those who have come before; we re-tell stories that are precious or meaningful to us so as not to forget them and to hold onto them as firmly as possible. I think we largely remember so as to preserve the past and not lose it.
When Dad died last year, our family found grief an occasion for remembering. Some of that, no doubt, comes from realizing that there is one person now missing who used to be the link to all of these stories. And so we told them in our own effort not to forget, to preserve Dad's memories as though they were our own. And Dad was a fantastic story teller. He loved to talk about his grandmother Wilkes, who was so left-handed, she would drink your water. Or his stories of college hijinks and pranks. I remember him talking about discovering the thermostat for the entire dorm was in his room, and how he manipulated that in order to make the whole building heat up one night and freeze another.
But there was one story that Dad was famous for. It was the candle story. It doesn't present well in written form because of the physicality of it, so I may try and post a video of it here in a few days. I don't know that any videos of Dad telling it exist, but that's somehow fitting, because it wasn't really his story. It was a story that Uncle Henry used to tell, and before that Uncle Brock. And who knows who told it before them.
But we tell these stories, and re-tell these stories because we so desperately want to remember. And that remembering says something about who we are and to whom we belong.
One of my favorite podcasts is Radiolab, a show that describes itself as being "about curiosity." It often focuses on science as part of understanding the curious. Their show about memory looked at the latest discoveries of neuroscience and the mechanics of remembering. I think for most of us, the assumption is that memory is like a file cabinet or a hard drive. They're all in there somewhere; it's just a matter of accessing it somehow.
The truth about memory, however, is surprising. Through what neuroscience has learned within the last few years, it seems that memory is not like this at all. Instead, when we remember, we re-create or re-experience the memory. When those memories are not so wonderful, like abuse or trauma, this is why there is a need to find ways to heal the memory; each remembrance is as though we are living it again. When those memories are things we do want to remember, this is why so often it seems that memories change.
Have you ever had the experience of retelling an old story with an old friend or sibling who has a very different memory of the event? How can it be that two people are remembering the same event so differently? In essence, we are re-living the experience imperfectly, because we are not the same person; we are not in the same situation; we are not in that place. Jonah Lehrer, a science writer speaking on that Radiolab program, says it best: "What you are remembering is that memory interpreted in the light of today, in the light of now."
I don't know of a better description of how the church employs memory. Our primary purpose in telling these stories from Scripture, or from our memories of this congregation, is not necessarily to preserve them; instead, it ought to be for the sake of remembering what it is that God has done in the past for us, seen in the light of what is doing in our lives now, and understanding that God will be at work in the years to come.
The lesson from Acts about Philip baptizing the Ethiopian eunuch is an excellent example of this. Here is this high court official from Ethiopia (who may or may not actually be a eunuch - the evidence is unclear based on Greek usage of the term) who is leaving Jerusalem where he has been worshiping. He is either a Jewish proselyte/convert or is getting close to that. And so, as he reads the scroll of Isaiah, he gets caught up on the passages we know as the "Suffering Servant" passages. Outside of the Christian context, this wasn't understood so much in a Messianich framework; instead, it was a general way of understanding suffering and its role in God's work and mercy in the world.
So as Philip approaches this chariot, the Ethiopian invites him in; and Philip remembers this story to him in light of the gospel. Or as the lesson says, "the good news about Jesus." It is then that he notices that there is water along the road; the stop, and Philip baptizes him.
Next week we are going to be celebrating the Sacrament of Baptism here in our worship service. And the moments when we do are a chance for us to remember our story in light of what God has done and continues to do. Both of our sacraments, both communion and baptism, are moments when we re-tell the salvation history, the work of what God has done as we know from the Scriptures. We begin with creation, the calling out of a nation, the sending of prophets, the coming of Christ, and the meaning of his crucifixion and resurrection. We re-tell and remember each time we celebrate the Sacrament, because they serve as reminders of what the Holy Spirit has already done and continues to do in our lives.
I have posted the French Reformed Church's baptismal liturgy, where the pastor speaks directly to the child:
For you, little one, the Spirit of God moved over the waters at creation, and the Lord God made covenants with his people. It was for you that the Word of God became flesh and lived among us, full of grace and truth. For you, Jesus Christ suffered death crying out at the end, "It is finished!" For you Christ triumphed over death, rose in newness of life, and ascended to rule over all. All of this was done for you, little one, though you do not know any of this yet. But we will continue to tell you this good news until it becomes your own. And so the promise of the gospel is fulfilled: "We love because God first loved us."
We tell this story again and again, if science is right, not because we want to preserve it as it was. Instead, we re-tell it and remember it so that it becomes real and it becomes ours. When we baptize, or when we simply see the font in front of us, we remember the whole story of salvation. And whether we have already been baptized, or hope to be baptized, or don't know what all the fuss is about, there is still this amazing thing that happens whereby we ourselves are brought into this story.
Religion, re-ligion, is at its heart a word about reconnecting. As is re-membering: taking these members and bringing them together again. All of this leads us to a simple truth: God is at work in our lives before we even know it; this is why we baptize infants. God has been at work at OPC and in our lives. But let us remember this: God is at work now at OPC and in our lives. And God will be at work at OPC and in our lives in the years to come.
May we never forget.