O Lord, uphold Thou me, that I may uplift thee. Amen
True story. A young priest was called to be the rector of a small New England church that had fallen on hard times. The people were eager for a change and the priest was eager to lead them into the future. In this church behind the altar there hung a sanctuary lamp intended to illumine the Aumbry, a box in which the reserve sacrament was kept. This sanctuary lamp was a large Victorian brass lamp extended from the ceiling by a chain. It held one candle that was surrounded by red tinted glass. This type of lamp is common in Episcopal Churches in many parts of the country and while many in Virginia have never seen a sanctuary lamp, it was no surprise to the rector. What was a surprise to the new pastor was the large dirty tassel that hung from the bottom of the lamp. It was an old cotton tassel on a braided cord. This tassel was frayed and stained and while it might have once been white in color, it was now a dark gray. It bugged him. Such a beautiful church and yet there was that thing hanging above the altar. His second Sunday he cut it down. After church that morning the once gushingly friendly congregation hardly acknowledged their new rector.
After several weeks, the rector approached the senior warden and asked if there was a problem. The warden was hesitant but he confessed that the people were mad with him, quite mad, because he had cut down the tassel. It turned out
that this tassel belonged to the previous rector who had had a real struggle with alcohol. Half way through his tenure the parish had intervened and the priest had been convinced to seek help. His recovery was long and slow. When he finally returned to work members of the parish took the bathrobe he had worn during the long months of his initial recovery, which had become a symbol of his illness and they cut the tassel off the rope to the bathrobe and tied it to the sanctuary lamp where it hung for the last ten years of his ministry. What had been to the new rector a nasty, dirty tassel with no function was to the congregation a very powerful symbol of new life and new beginnings. By cutting down the tassel, this new rector was in effect tearing down the memory of his predecessor’s triumph and the congregation’s role in that triumph.
True story. Two brothers enter the same profession. They share a business together for many years. One day the business is dissolved because of a festering misunderstanding between them. They say and do some things to hurt one another and the relationship is broken. Quite literally, they do not speak for the next fifty years the memory of that disagreement lives on and they give it power over their lives. They live sixty miles apart but their rift is complete. They each have children but because of the broken relationship, the cousins never really know one another. The years pass. Life goes on. They finally reconcile but the younger brother is in his late seventies and the older brother is in his eighties and dying of cancer. Each has missed the life of his sibling, and each has tragically allowed the memory of an argument to define the rest of his life.
Memory is a funny thing. It can build up or it can destroy. It can hold us together or it can pull us apart. The memories of
an event or a person can under gird and strengthen our lives. The memories of a trauma can limit our lives and weaken our self-image.
The memory represented by the bathrobe tassel was a redemptive memory for that congregation. It reminded those folks of what they could be, of what they could do; it was symbolic of a conquering love. In many ways, I think the burned remnant of our reredos that hangs on the wall of our chapel functions in the same way. It reminds us of what this place went through, of the fire that gutted our church and the challenge that followed. It is a memory of what we were, a symbol of what we survived and a symbol that points to the Spirit in this place, to the Spirit of God in a people who would not let their church die.
The memory of the conflict between the two brothers, on the other hand, was a memory that limited two lives. It was a memory that tore family apart and destroyed relationships. Like the memories of so many in Bosnia and Croatia, in Northern Ireland and Israel they are memories that pile on top of themselves, on top of lives like heavy weights, limiting growth and dampening the ability to love.
St. Paul said, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” As members of the body of Christ, we are invited and encouraged both to remember and forget. We are invited to remember and hold onto that which is redemptive and healing. Our churches and our liturgies are ripe with images and symbols constantly
pointing beyond themselves, constantly reminding us of realities which are meant to uplift and focus our lives. “Do this in remembrance of me,” Jesus told his disciples when he broke the bread and passed the cup. “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return,” we say to one another as the ashes of our mortality are marked upon our foreheads on Ash Wednesday. As Christians we are all about remembering the events of our faith, and we do so because we believe that to live into these memories is to be empowered, to be lifted up, to be given a perspective on living that us unique and life giving. However, at the same time our faith, exemplified by the words of Paul, invites us to lay down other memories, to put aside other distinctions that separate us, memories that hold us apart. Rich and poor, black and white, old Richmond, new comer, liberal, conservative – we are invited to put aside these memories, not to forget, but to set them down in light of a common memory, a common identity as God’s children who have been clothed with Christ.
As individuals, this invitation to unburden ourselves from memory is essential. We are invited to free ourselves from the experiences of life that weigh us down that limit us and define us as something less than the beloved children of God. To this end, there is an old tradition within the church that says once a sin is confessed it ought never to be confessed again. In God’s eyes it has been put away, removed, it is no more and to hold onto it is to deny the power of God’s redeeming love.
Eli Wiesel once wrote (and I paraphrase) as long as the spark of Auschwitz glows in my memory, my joy will be incomplete. In all of our lives there are things that cannot be forgotten and perhaps should not be forgotten – a parent’s failings, a spouse’s cruelties, a friend’s betrayal, the violence of a stranger. Nevertheless, our faith teaches us that while we may not be able to forget, and only some of us can learn to forgive, we can learn to live so that these memories no longer dominate our lives, so that these memories no longer act as barriers to grace. We can surround ourselves with other memories, deeper memories, memories shrouded in mystery of a God who dies for her children, memories of a God who invites us to feed on his flesh.
How we remember has much to say about how we live. Do we allow our memories to hold us in place, to keep us in the past, to weigh us down and harden our hearts? Or, do we use memory as a catalyst, as a means to propel us into the future, at the same time holding onto memory like a rudder to keep us centered while we face that future?
In closing, I treasure my few memories of Dottie Valentine. Her courage and her faith stand as guideposts for me and for all of us about what it means to live the Christian life. She is gone but her memory lives on and that is a memory to which we can cling.
What we remember, how we use our memories, how we embrace them and release them determines our future as much as the events themselves. Remember who you are, remember what you have been given. And through grace, may we all find the strength to cling to those memories that are redemptive and learn to let go of all the rest. Amen.