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What It is to Remember (and to Forget)

 

1st Chronicles 16:8-13
Galatians 2:1-10
Luke 22:14-23

At least once a week I tell my seminary students that of all the subjects in the theological curriculum the most important, unquestionably, is Old Testament. For it’s through studying the Old(er) Testament that we come to know the specific Hebrew meanings of common English words.

Today we are going to probe the Hebrew meaning of “remember”. We shall be helped to understand “remember” if we first learn the meaning of “forget”. To forget, in modern discourse, is simply to have an idea or notion slip out of the mind. To forget a person is simply no longer to have the idea of that person in one’s consciousness. But in the Hebrew bible to forget someone is much more serious: to forget someone is to annihilate that person, obliterate him, destroy him. When the Israelites cried to God not to forget them they didn’t mean, “Be sure to think of us once in a while.” They meant, “Don’t annihilate us, don’t blot us out.” It’s obvious that to forget, in Hebrew, has to do not with ideas but with living realities. In the same manner to remember has to do not with recollecting notions but with living realities. In a word, to remember, Hebraically, is to bring a past event up into the present so that what happened back then continues to happen right now — and is therefore the operative reality of our existence. What unfolded back then, altering forever those whom it touched then, continues to be operative now, altering forever those who “remember” it now. When the Israelites are urged to remember the deliverance from slavery of their foreparents centuries earlier they aren’t being urged merely to recollect a historical fact; rather they are being urged to live the same reality themselves, the reality of deliverance, seven hundred years later. Just as their foreparents knew most intimately a great deliverance at God’s hand, together with the gratitude and the obedience which that deliverance quickened, so they are now to know most intimately a similar deliverance at God’s hand, together with a similar gratitude and a similar obedience.

This is very different from the way we speak of remembering today. When we remember we merely bring to mind the idea or notion of an event. But when our Hebrew foreparents spoke of remembering they meant something far stronger; they meant that what had happened in the past continued to be a present, operative, life-altering reality.

I: — Over and over the Hebrew bible insists that God remembers. God remembers his covenant; God remembers his holy promise; God remembers his steadfast love; God remembers his mercy. All of these items amount to the same thing. God’s covenant is his bond with us. Of his own grace and truth God has bound himself to his people. He will never quit on us out of weariness or give up on us out of frustration or desert us out of disgust. He has pledged himself to us. To be sure, his gracious pledge to us aims at forging in us our grateful pledge to him; as he binds himself to us we are to bind ourselves to him. Nevertheless, even though we break our covenant with him he never breaks his with us. Our gratitude to him may be — is — as fitful as our moods; nonetheless, his graciousness towards us is unvarying.

The psalmist tells us that God remembers his holy promise. His covenant is his promise, and because he “remembers” it his promise remains operative no matter what.

And since the God whose promise is forever operative is the God whose nature is a fountain of effervescing love, the psalmist maintains that God remembers his steadfast love.

And when this love meets our sin, this love takes the form of mercy; God remembers his mercy. In a word, the operative reality permeating the entire universe at this moment is God’s remembered covenant, promise, steadfast love and mercy.

Since God is God his memory must be exceedingly good; in fact, is there anything God doesn’t remember? Does God have a photographic memory, remembering everything forever? The truth is, God is supremely good at forgetting; he loves to forget, literally “loves” to forget. A minute ago I said that to forget, in Hebrew, doesn’t mean to let slip out of one’s mind accidentally; to forget is to annihilate deliberately, blot out, obliterate. To God’s people who humble themselves penitently before him, says the prophet Isaiah, God declares, “I, I am he who blots out your transgressions for my sake, and I will not remember your sins.” The prophet doesn’t mean that God has absentmindedly lost track of human sin. He means that God has blotted out the sins of repentant people; their sin is no longer operative, it no longer determines their standing before God or impedes their access to God. God is marvellously adept at forgetting whenever he beholds repentant people.

But of course there is always that throbbing mercy of God which we want God to remember, for we want such mercy to remain the operative truth, the final truth, the ultimate reality of our lives. For this reason the dying criminal, crucified alongside our Lord, gasped with his last gasp, “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” The dying criminal, profoundly repentant, had just rebuked the unrepentant criminal strung up on the other side of Jesus, “Don’t you fear God? You and I are under the same sentence of condemnation, and we deserve it.” It is a wise person who knows that her sentence of condemnation is precisely what she deserves, wise again when her plea which pushes aside all frivolous requests is simply, “Jesus, remember me”. This plea is a plea that the mercy which was wrought at the cross become now and remain eternally the operative truth and reality of our womb-to-tomb existence. “Jesus, remember me.” “I, I am the God who blots out your transgressions for my sake, and I will not remember your sins.”

II: — Those men and women whom our Lord remembers in this way; a peculiar remembering is required of them as well. In the sermon on the mount Jesus says to his disciples, “If you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift at the altar and go; first, be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” Jesus insists that as we gather with others for worship our own spiritual affairs must be put in order. To think we can worship the holy God and cavalierly overlook the unholy corruption of our hearts and the spiritual disorder of our lives is to dishonour God. Jesus speaks, in the Sermon on the Mount, of the futility of attempting to worship God while our heart and our brother’s heart are estranged. By extension, Jesus speaks of the futility of attempting to worship God while any spiritual disorder about us is unaddressed. This is not to counsel scrupulosity, a perfectionism which leaves people nervous, self-rejecting, and despairing. But it is to get serious about putting right what we know not to be right in our lives.

You see, to overlook or regard as trivial what we know to be out of order within us is only to find it getting worse. What is spiritually corrupt will never get better by itself. Hatred will never re-nature itself as love; it will only become more hateful until it consumes and controls us. Lust will never alchemize itself into non-exploitative affection; lust will only disguise itself as affection as it worsens until it fills the horizon of our life. When are we going to learn that the person found lying can be forgiven (and should be forgiven) but cannot be trusted? I am dismayed when I come upon people who are indifferent to truth-telling and transparency. Don’t they know that they will not be trusted (at least by me)? They have advertised themselves as devious and bent on deceiving others. Plainly they are untrustworthy.

Whatever our spiritual disorder is, says Jesus, we should first “remember” it; then we should be sure to “forget” it. He means we should acknowledge our spiritual disorder as operative right now in order that it might be obliterated and we ourselves be healed.

The Christians who characteristically have had the best perspective on such matters are my old friends, the 17th century Puritans. The Puritans (who have been maligned with a reputation they don’t deserve) are the master diagnosticians of the human heart. On the one hand the Puritans knew that people who are always taking their temperature are neurotic fusspots. On the other hand, the Puritans knew that people who never take themselves to a physician, even when the symptoms of illness are glaring, are simply fools. The Puritans had read our Lord’s word, “If you are bringing your gift to the altar and you remember whatever spiritual corruption lurks within you, do something about it immediately — otherwise your worship is phoney, and your declared love for God pretence.”

Thomas Watson, my favourite Puritan thinker, states pithily, “Christ is never loved till sin be loathed.” At the same time Watson is careful to leave with us that word which will spare us self-rejection but will rather comfort us as it redirects us to our Lord himself: “Do not rest upon this, that your heart has been wounded for sin, but rather that your Saviour has been wounded for sin.” His final pronouncement takes us back to the God who remembers his own steadfast love and promised mercy: “Are they not fools who will believe a temptation before they believe a promise?” God remembers his promise of mercy, and we must remember the selfsame promise as often as we remember the disorder within us.

III: — We are not yet finished with our Hebrew lesson in remembering. Paul tells the Christians in Galatia that they must remember the poor. To remember the poor, everyone knows by now, isn’t to recall them to mind, or even to think charitably about them. To remember the poor is to make the reality of their poverty an operative ingredient in our discipleship.

Next question: who are the poor? I do not dispute that there are economically disadvantaged people in our midst. At the same time, virtually no one in Canada is economically destitute. The social welfare system in Canada virtually guarantees that no one is destitute; no one is economically resourceless. In Canada there are two ways of contributing to the financial needs of the needy: voluntary and involuntary. The voluntary way is to make a donation when someone knocks at your door. The involuntary way is income tax. The income tax which we pay supports those who cannot maintain themselves elsehow. When Maureen’s father was accommodated in a nursing home, Maureen became aware of the large government subsidy required to keep her father there. Maureen also figured out that what it cost the taxpayer to accommodate her dad in the nursing home was precisely what she herself paid in income tax. When other schoolteachers complained in the staffroom about having to pay income tax, Maureen gently told them she was glad to “remember” her father.

In ancient Israel the poor were commonly gathered up in the expression, “widows and orphans and sojourners”. The sojourner was a resident alien. As an alien the sojourner was uncommonly vulnerable. Widows were bereft of income (in a society where wage-earners were exclusively male). Orphans were bereft of everything. They were vulnerable too. In other words, the meaning of “poor” in Israel was unusually vulnerable”; the poor were those who are especially defenceless.

When Paul urges us to “remember the poor” he means that we are to be fused to those who are extraordinarily vulnerable. These people may not be financially poor at all. Nonetheless, we are surrounded on all sides with people who are extraordinarily vulnerable, defenceless, even though they may be wealthier than we. It’s not difficult to find people who are financially adequate yet who are emotionally vulnerable, psychiatrically vulnerable, racially vulnerable, ethnically vulnerable, physically vulnerable, intellectually vulnerable. And of course those who are spiritually vulnerable are legion — everyone, in fact. Then what exactly are we to do as we “remember” such people? There is no pre-packaged formula; there is no sure-fire, step-by-step program of remembering the poor. One thing we must do, surely, is scatter ourselves among those who are vulnerable, defenceless, in any respect.

Because of my responsibilities on Sunday morning I rarely socialize on a Saturday evening (no more than once or twice a year.) On one such occasion, however, I was to go to a brass band concert in which one of my friends was playing. I was about to back my car out of the driveway when a car drove up furiously into the driveway of the house next door. A young woman emerged, ran up onto the front steps, and began pounding the door, kicking the door, and banging on the kitchen window, all the while shouting for the occupant to come out. (Plainly she was bent on harming the occupant.) It so happened that the occupants were a very elderly, infirm couple of Polish extraction with limited English facility. They refused to open the door, and were cursed all the more loudly, as the furious attacker kept pounding on the kitchen window until it broke. (It turned out the furious woman was looking for the woman who was a tenant in the house’s basement apartment.) I can’t describe the terror that overtook the elderly couple upstairs. They were beside themselves. I telephoned the police, then sat with the shaken couple until the police arrived; I gave the police the licence number of the car and a description of the miscreant, and did what I could to comfort the distraught old folks until I had to leave for my social engagement. My point is this: at the moment of the assault, the aged couple were poor in the biblical sense of “poor”; that is, they were extraordinarily vulnerable, defenceless. They were not financially underprivileged; obviously they could afford to live on my street. Still, they were “poor” at that moment. To remember the poor in this context is to do what the moment requires.

Who are the poor for us? The single mother whose husband has gone to jail? The child who is intellectually challenged and is tormented by other children? The elderly man who gets flustered and confused every time he goes to the bank and cannot pay a bill without unravelling? The unmarried person who finds living in an exclusively couple-oriented society almost a form of solitary confinement? The spiritual groper who doesn’t know whether to try the New Age Movement or Old Age Atheism or Jesus Christ or Kung Fu — and who wonders if there is even any difference? Whom do you and I know to be especially vulnerable, defenceless? These are the people whom our lives must intersect, for only as their vulnerability becomes an aspect of our lives are the poor remembered.

IV: — And then there is another aspect of “remembering” that we must mention in view of the season that is upon us. On Remembrance Day we shall remember. Many who remember on that occasion will remember in the popular sense of recalling to consciousness the idea of war, plus the idea of service rendered by relatively few on behalf of many. Even such remembering is certainly better than no remembering. But because you and I have gone to school in Israel , we are going to remember in a much profounder sense. We know that to remember is to make a past event the operative reality, the determining truth, of our lives now.

What was the past event? It was sacrifice, enormous sacrifice, the costliest sacrifice imaginable, for the sake of justice and peace. The circumstances in world-occurrence at the time of our foreparents required that they bear arms to secure justice and peace. The circumstances in world-occurrence at this moment do not require that Canadians as a whole bear arms. But this is not to say that the sacrifice required of us is any less. Justice and peace have never been obtained without sacrifice, and never will be. After all, that justice which is our justification before God, and that peace (shalom) which is our salvation before God; these were obtained only by the sacrifice of the cross. Then we must understand that to redress the slightest injustice anywhere in life; to supplant hostility with peace anywhere in life; this requires sacrifice of some sort, however undramatic — and always will.

Today is Remembrance Day Sunday. We remember the sacrifice our foreparents made years ago. To remember such sacrifice is to have all that they gave and gave up become the operative reality of our lives now. Then it remains only for you and me to decide what this gospel-vocation for justice and peace requires of us now. To be sure, such a vocation will require something different from each of us. In “remembering” in the sense in which we must remember, we must ever keep in mind the Remembrance Day statement, “Lest we forget.” “Lest we forget” doesn’t mean, “Lest a recollection of something decades old fade from consciousness”; “Lest we forget” means “Lest the sacrifice our foreparents made be blotted out, annihilated, rendered of no account.” In a fallen world where injustice and savagery are the order of the day, justice and peace arise only as sacrifice is made; which is to say, only as the sacrifice made on our behalf is remembered, and thereby made the operative reality of our lives now. To remember a sacrifice made for us is simply to make our own sacrifice on behalf of others.

When we remember on Remembrance Day, we remember (in the biblical sense) those who were poor (vulnerable) in a special sense. But this is surely to remember those who are poor in the widest biblical sense. And we remember these people just because God first remembers us. He remembers his covenant with us, his promise to us, his steadfast love and mercy for us. He doesn’t forget. Which is to say, so far from being blotted out, believing and repentant people are held dear in the heart of God, and will be for ever and ever.

Victor Shepherd
November 2006