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Remembering Jesus

To The Cross and Beyond
Cycle A Gospel Sermons for Lent and Easter
The novel The Ugly American is based upon facts of how Americans related to people in Southeast Asia. The insensitivity and arrogance of American government officials was generally depressing. One chapter of the novel, however, is particularly inspiring. An American woman, Emma Atkins, has come with her engineer husband to the fictional nation of Sarkhan. Emma is a curious, good-hearted person and she soon notices that in their small village all the older people are permanently bent over.

She struggles with the language in order to ask neighbors why old people in the village are stooped. No one can answer. For her fellow villagers it's natural that old people are bent over, always have been. But Emma assumes there's a reason that every person over sixty is bent in a constant stoop. By the time the rainy season passes, she's set to delve into the cause of the old peoples' painful posture.

The monsoons end, people spend more time outdoors, and Emma realizes that village clean up is accomplished exclusively by the older people. Each day they sweep the ground with a broom made of palm fronds, yet the broom handle is only a couple feet long. The elderly spend their twilight years bent under a burden of their own making: the tradition of a short handled broom.

Emma talks with an old woman who is bent and crippled and tells her that sweeping bent over all day molds an older person into a permanent stoop. She suggests attaching a longer handle to the broom so people can stand upright while sweeping. The woman argues otherwise. Brooms always have short handles.

The reason, Emma discovers, is that wood is scarce in their area and putting a longer wood handle on a broom would seem a waste. Emma is creative and she's interested in helping people. She finds a reed plant that grows near and it has one strong central stock large enough to be a broom handle. She has her husband dig the reed plant out, cart it home, and plant it by their hut. The villagers are curious. Then one day when several of her neighbors are present, she cuts the central reed, binds it to the broom's fronds, and begins sweeping while standing upright. For a few days everyone watches her, then someone asks where she found a reed long enough for such a broom handle.

Emma and her husband soon move to work in another village and four years later, living again in the United States, a letter arrives from the village headman to Emma. He thanks her for demonstrating a new way to sweep and consequently unbending the backs of the village old people. The headman writes, "I know you are not of our religion, wife of the engineer, but perhaps you will be pleased to know that on the outskirts of our village we have constructed a small shrine in your memory. It is a simple affair; at the foot of the altar are these words: 'In memory of the woman who unbent the backs of our people.' And in front of the shrine there is a stack of the old short reeds that we used to use."1

Some people think the Bible always tells us what to do. Yet, read the Bible and you find that a great deal of the Bible shows us, which is a much more "telling" way to communicate: like Emma just sweeping away with her long-handled broom. Since we weren't alive in first-century Galilee and Judea, God has given us the gospel stories of Jesus so we too can see a divine way of living. Jesus isn't just a wonderful example, because try as we may we'll never live up to it. The Bible's four gospels are portraits, each from its own perspective, of how God lives among us. Our reading the gospels or hearing them read helps us see and remember God's unique person and how he portrays divine life for us. Therefore, our first and most important task as Christians is to remember what we hear about Jesus.

A distinct and usable memory along with imagination sets us apart from the animal world. Animals remember, but humans can select our memories, find order and patterns in life, ponder experience, and learn. The philosopher Soren Kierkegaard stated, "Life must be lived forward, but it can only be understood backward." A good deal of our understanding life comes from using our memory.

In the Old Testament, when a person is commanded by God to remember, it means to bring something actively into the present and to let that memory lead us into appropriate behavior. The Old Testament demonstrates the active sense of memory in 1 Samuel. It tells of Hannah's being promised a child. The scripture says Elkanah knew his wife Hannah, which means they had sexual intercourse, and "the Lord remembered her. In due time Hannah conceived and bore a son" (1 Samuel 1:19-20). It's not as though God had forgotten Hannah; but, the whole sense of remembering in the Bible means to become active in doing something.

In fact, in the language of the Old Testament when one puts the verb "to remember" into the causal tense the meaning soars high beyond "to recall" until it means "to praise, extol, worship."2 When we truly remember what God has done for us, our most authentic response as humans is to worship God. The same applies to such things as the commandment, "Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy." To remember the sabbath doesn't mean just calling it to mind, but to observe it, to guard it, and to celebrate all that it means of God's grace to us. To remember Jesus means to bring him into our living.

"Remember," the Bible so often states. Our responsibility within the faith makes us attentive to our memory and we learn to regulate it, train it, use it. Because we can forget things. Ever stop in the kitchen and say, "Now, what was I here after?" That's known as "pondering the hereafter." Or you walk from the supermarket into the parking lot and say, "Where did I park?" It could be worse. You could stand there asking, "What kind of car do I own?"

Paul handed on the words of Jesus at his last supper in which Jesus specifically instructed his students to remember him. What were Jesus'students supposed to remember? That they never understood Jesus? That they tried to keep people away from him, people he wanted to see? That they struggled to be top of the group while he served them selflessly? Were they to remember that on Jesus' last night with them one of them betrayed him, one denied him three times, and all fled him?

What would Jesus have us remember about his last earthly meal with his students? Matthew reports for us: "While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, 'Take, eat; this is my body.' Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, 'Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins' " (vv. 26-28).

Jesus' life, death, and this meal are "for the forgiveness of sins." When we come to this meal, the bread and wine fill us with memories of Jesus. We feel solemn, because it's about his death. We're also joyful because we here share his resurrection. Some people plunge beyond solemn at communion. When they think about the sacrament of communion, they become stuck, because Jesus stated that what he did was for the forgiveness of sins. They obsess upon sins and miss forgiveness. From Jesus' point of view, our longer English word forgiveness is more important. Jesus forgives us. We get to start over with his resurrection, and we don't deserve it. His meal is about that. If we deserved it, it wouldn't be forgiveness. That's what we need to remember.

Yet our memory can malfunction. Our memory can ambush us, even in worship, even as we come to receive the means of grace in this bread and cup. Our memory can accuse us, "Did God really forgive that sin of yours? That was pretty awful, you know. Sure, God forgives others, but your sin was so stinking, so gigantic, so hurtful, with results that will leak into the lives of others and spread destruction through the coming generations. Where do you get off claiming forgiveness? You presume just to walk forward to this rail and be forgiven! You?"

A rotten memory can bother us. You could say that our memory misfires. Jesus, however, wants us to remember the forgiveness of sins. In the scriptures, in worship, and in this sacrament Jesus proclaims that the burden of sin is off us and onto him. His choice.

Again in the language of the Old Testament a word often used metaphorically for forgiveness literally means lifting up or carrying away.3 When we truly remember Jesus, it sinks into us from our freed and forgiven memory that we've been lifted up to true life. The consequences of the meal Jesus serves remind us in miniature of what his entire life accomplished: Jesus lifts us up. Even if we are perpetually bent by arthritis or confined daily to a wheelchair, in the eyes of our Lord Jesus we stand before him as true human beings, heads lifted -- not in arrogance, but looking now at the world as did Emma Atkins, in order to see where Jesus summons us to serve God by loving others.

Remember Jesus when you are doubtful. When you remember him, you'll find his very life activated in you again as his Spirit reaches and meets your spirit. Jesus loves us more than we expected and more than we deserve. I'm always taken by a radio talk show host who responds to the question, "How are you doing?" with the answer, "Better than I deserve." So it is with all of us, and we need to remember it.

Yet, we can forget God's grace to us and so we need to be reminded about what's really important, like the rich man who was marrying a much younger woman. In order to trust that she loved him more than his money, before they were married he had her promise that if he died first she'd bury his money with him. She agreed. A number of times in their marriage he asked her, "Do you remember you promised to bury my money with me?" She always said, "Yes." As he got older he reminded her more often and she always agreed. As expected he died before his wife and, sure enough, at his funeral she walked last to his open casket, reached in, and placed on his chest a check for three million dollars.

As Emma Atkins showed with her longer broom, sometimes we suffer because we can't imagine better ways to do things. At other times, as the rich man, we forget there are other ways to do things. So in worship we practice remembering Jesus and how he achieved lasting change for humanity. He loved us, even to death.

Along with our memories of the earthly Jesus we all bring our personal memories of experiences in which God's grace has reached us. I'm a bookish person, so no surprise that a special memory of mine is from a book. The book was about the faith of psychiatrists. One man related, "Undoubtedly the most important event of the year was 'falling in love' with Carola. February 15, 1934, when I first saw her at a concert, when I introduced myself (she already knew who I was), when I asked her if I could walk her home, when I ate her baking-powder biscuits, when I kissed her goodnight, was the memorable day in solving the question of my relationship with the opposite sex. I still occasionally buy her a rose on the fifteenth of the month -- any month."4

"A memorable day" he said, a day he set out continually and joyfully to remember by doing something in response to the person he loved. We can do something to remember Jesus during any worship. We'll do what he commanded us here at this altar. But also, like the short brooms laid beside the altar in the fictional nation of Sarkhan, we can come today and lay down our dysfunctional ways of living that wear us out. Because Jesus forgives us, here we can drop our self-inflicted sins, the impediments that spiritually disable us and reduce us as human beings. We can continually and joyfully remember our Lord Jesus and realize that, as we serve him by loving others, he keeps lifting us up and up and up into the fullest stature of the children of God.

When we approach our Lord's table he commands us to remember. Recall here the grace of our Lord Jesus and let him again assure you that your sins, grievous as they seem to you, are forgiven. Leave here all things that prevent your living for Jesus and allow God's Holy Spirit to lead you now in forgiving others. Amen.


1. William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick, The Ugly American (New York: Fawcett, 1958), pp. 196-201.

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4. Donald F. Moore, "A Religious Autobiography," in Paul E. Johnson, Healers of the Mind (Nashville: Abingdon, 1972), p. 192.
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