Thursday, October 16, 2008

Je me souviens

[The following sermon was preached in the Chapel of the Epiphany at Vancouver School of Theology on 16 October 2008 and was modified from a sermon preached at St Faith's Anglican Church on 13 October 2008. The readings are the first set for Thanksgiving: Deuteronomy 8.7-18; Psalm 65; 2 Corinthians 9.6-15 and Luke 17.11-18.]

When our children, David, Anna and Owen, were younger, we frequently played re-cordings of Broadway musicals. The three of them, with their youthful abilities to pick the lyrics of songs quickly, devoured these recordings. On some of our road trips, they would entertain us by giving impromptu performances of Joseph and the Technicolor Dream Coat or The Phantom of the Opera or Jesus Christ Superstar or Cats.

In Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats there is a poignant scene where Grizabella, the nce glamorous now shabby cat who left the tribe to explore the world and has suffered that world’s cruelties, returns. She is shunned by the older cats and provokes discomfort among the younger ones. But Grizabella has returned seeking what she can only find among her tribe, the opportunity to be the cat to whom Old Deuteronomy, the chief of the tribe, be-stows the gift of re-birth.

I think that there are few Broadway songs that evoke the despair and longing for meaning as clearly and as powerfully as Grizabella’s solo, ‘Memory’. Perhaps some of you have seen the musical or the film version or even heard it on the radio.

See the dew on the sunflower
And a rose that is fading.
Roses wither away.
Like the sunflower
I yearn to turn my face to the dawn.
I am waiting for the day.

Not a sound from the pavement.
Has the moon lost her memory?
She is smiling alone.
In the lamplight
The withered leaves collect at my feet.
And the wind begins to moan.

All alone in the moonlight
I can smile at the old days.
I was beautiful then.
I remember the time I knew what happiness was.
Let the memory live again.

Every streetlamp
Seems to beat a fatalistic warning.
Someone mutters,
And the streetlamp gutters,
And soon it will be morning.

I must wait for the sunrise.
I must think of a new life
And I mustn’t give in.
When the dawn comes,
Tonight will be a memory too.
And a new day will begin.

Burnt out ends of smoky days,
The stale cold smell of morning.
The streetlamp dies, another night is over,
Another day is dawning.

Touch me.
It’s so easy to leave me
All alone with the memory
Of my days in the sun.
If you touch me,
You’ll understand what happiness is.

A new day has begun.

Younger cats come gingerly towards her, touching her, stroking her, embracing her. The older cats gather around her and Old Deuteronomy approaches her and leads her into the light that signifies her new life.

Among the human faculties memory plays more than just a significant role. To lose one’s memory, to become an amnesiac, is to lose one’s identity. But the faculty of memory is both an involuntary and a voluntary function. By this I mean that we arrange our memo-ries, we, in some mysterious way, choose how we remember the events, emotions and per-ceptions of our lives. This mysterious ordering of our memories contributes either positively or negatively to our present and to our future.

Here in our own country we have a constant reminder of the importance of memory in establishing one’s identity. The motto of the province of Québec is ‘Je me souviens’ --- ‘I remember’. But one digs deeper, the motto might read ‘I come back to myself’ or ‘I return to who I am’.

In Deuteronomy memory is an essential element of the life of faith. Fred Craddock writes, “Those who have plenty of food, ‘fine houses,’ herds and flocks, and even gold and silver . . . may become arrogant . . . and even say in their heart, ‘My power and the might of my own hand gave gotten me this wealth’. . . . Such persons have short memories. The way to avoid that corrupting attitude and its attendant behaviour is to remember”

But what shall we remember? For the writer of Deuteronomy we remember first and foremost the commandments of God to do justice, love steadfast faithfulness to God and to other and to walk humbly with God. Second, we remember what God has done and contin-ues to do for the people with whom God has established the covenant. This remembering, however, is not some intellectual exercise but the active ‘. . . recital of the might acts of God’ that continue to define and shape our behaviour as God’s beloved. Our active remember-ing takes place in our acts of formal worship where we proclaim the Scriptures, the chronicle of God’s activity in the life of the people of Israel and the people of the gospel of Jesus of Nazareth, but our remembering is also a matter of our everyday living, our conscious re-membering of God’s activity in our personal lives, in the lives of our families and in the life of our community.

Often newer editions of the various translations of the Bible will include headings for various sections of a given biblical book. Two more recent editions, The Jewish Study Bible and the third edition of The New Oxford Annotated Bible, both published by Oxford Univer-sity Press, have the following heading for the portion of Deuteronomy we heard first this morning: ‘The perils of prosperity’.

Prosperity brings peril as well as comfort. Plentiful supplies of food, clothing and ma-terial goods may lead us to confess that God is no longer necessary for my life. As the writer of Deuteronomy says in the last verse of today’s reading as translated in The New Je-rusalem Bible, “Beware of thinking to yourself, ‘My own strength and the might of my own hand have given me the power to act like this.’ Remember Yahweh your God; he was the one who gave you the strength to act effectively like this, thus keeping then, as today, the covenant which he swore to your ancestors.”

The commandment to do justice can fade into the background when we find our-selves among those who are not the victims of injustice in any of its forms. The command-ment to love steadfast faithfulness to God and to others rings hollow when we engage in the North American vice known as ‘rugged individualism’. The commandment to walk hum-bly with God finds no purchase in us when we credit only our own hard work for our achieve-ments and ignore that our efforts depended upon a potential which was not of our own making but upon God’s gracious generosity.

Perhaps the greatest poverty we are likely to experience is that poverty of the spirit which springs from forgetting that all that we are and all that we have has its source in the open-handedness of God. We are called to be diligent and creative stewards of the re-sources given to us by the One who is the source of all life rather than confuse our steward-ship of God’s resources with our ownership. Perhaps many of the woes experienced in con-temporary North American society stem from this corporate amnesia and confusion.

As we gather for this eucharist, we cannot ignore the events occurring here and abroad. Greed and avarice have brought wealth to a few as well as fear, uncertainty and economic hardship to many more. The dynamics of a federal election campaign where sound-bites prevail over analysis and thoughtfulness have prevented us from a calm and dis-passionate discussion of the policies and actions that might mitigate the financial crisis as well as address the significant challenges facing our country economically, environmentally and socially. Conflict in the Middle East makes it difficult but not impossible for Christians, Jews and Muslims to sit down together in order to rid ourselves of ancient caricatures and forge new friendships based upon our common profession of faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob who appeared to Moses on Sinai, who was present to us in Jesus of Naz-areth and who spoke to Mohammed in the desert of Arabia.

But we are gathered for eucharist, to render thanks to the Holy One for the innumer-able gifts entrusted to our stewardship. We are gathered to proclaim in Word and Sacra-ment the deeds that God has done, is doing and will do for us and for all creation. We are gathered to become agents through whom God has acted, is acting and will act. We are gathered to remember --- to remember in order to challenge the corporate amnesia that our still prosperous and comfortable society can lull us into adopting. We are gathered to dispel the corporate delusion that it is only by our own strength and by our own deeds that we en-joy the benefits of creation.

I mentioned earlier the heading for today’s reading from Deuteronomy, ‘the perils of prosperity’. Let me offer you another. In the French Traduction Œcuménique de la Bible to-day’s gospel reading is entitled ‘the healing of the ten lepers and the salvation of the Samari-tan’. What was the difference between gift of physical healing and the gift of personal wholeness? Remembering the source. Constructing a future by acknowledging the action of God in one’s immediate past.

Whether we sat down at table on Sunday or Monday to share in our Thanksgiving feast, let us remember what we say and do in this present feast of the coming reign of God. Whether we look at our present with dread or with hope, let us remember that the God who gave us life is still active in us and through us. Let us remember with thankfulness the commandments to do justice, to love steadfast faithfulness to God and to others and to walk humbly with God as means towards that prosperity of spirit that God wills for every human being. Let us remember, even as markets tumble, elections swirl and wars rage, that God is not forgetful of us.

The Lord be with you.
And also with you.

Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
It is right to give our thanks and praise.

We praise and thank you, O God our Father, through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Through him you have enlightened us by revealing the light that never fades, for dark death has been destroyed and radiant life is everywhere restored. What was promised is fulfilled: we have been joined to God, through renewed life in the Spirit of the risen Lord. Glory and praise to you, our Father, through Jesus your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Spirit, in the kingdom of light eternal, for ever and ever. Amen.