Hebrews 11: 1-3, 8-16
Luke 12: 32-40
One of the advantages of a long road trip is the opportunity to listen to some wonderful programs. There were two on NPR that dealt with memory. One was an episode of Fresh Air that featured neuroscientist Dean Burnett. The other was on the Diane Rehm Show with author, Luke Dittrich, who wrote about the consequences of brain surgery his grandfather had performed on a man named Henry Gustav Molaison who suffered from epilepsy.
Burnett talked about the way the brain functions. “We’re not mini computers,” he said. “The brain organizes itself in some strange ways.” He asserted that short term memory is less than a minute. If we remember something for more than a minute, that’s long term memory. However, our memories are not pure fact. As we remember the past, we embellish it. We all have our own “fish” stories!
Dittrich’s book is about a man who became famous because he couldn’t remember anything after the surgery that Dittrich’s grandfather had performed. The surgery was intended to alleviate Molaison’s severe epilepsy—epilepsy caused by a childhood accident. What it did was remove Molaison’s ability to remember anything after the surgery. He became a famous test subject in the area of neuroscience. He could carry on conversations. He could do crossword puzzles. He could even get better at tasks –although he couldn’t remember ever having done them before. He thought of himself as a young man – the age when he had the surgery. When he was given a mirror, he was surprised --- every time!
Molaison demonstrated how important memory is. We know that. All of us know or have known people who have lost or are losing their memory. They suffer – and those around them suffer. They lose their sense of identity. In a broader sense, we recognize the need for societal memory. “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it,” is a well-tested warning.
We, as God’s people, are shaped by memory. The Bible is a memory book – stories told (sometimes with the aggrandizing of fish stories) to make sense of God’s presence in the lives of particular people at particular times. The passage from Hebrews remembers the story of two great ancestors in the faith, Abraham and Sarah. They are remembered after looking back at others, Abel, Enoch, and Noah. The author goes on to remember Moses, Rahab, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, and others. Their stories give a sense of identity to those who would choose to accept the invitation to be grafted into the life of faith. Our rites call us to remember that the human story is enter-twined with God’s story. As we celebrate the Lord’s Supper we hear Jesus’ words, “Do this in remembrance of me.” In some ways, we remember the ancient past so that we may repeat it – joining ourselves to the ongoing story of God’s redemptive presence in the world.
However, this passage from Hebrews begins its journey into remembering with a powerful statement that looks forward instead of backwards. “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
There is a danger in memory. That danger is nostalgia. We hear it all around us – that powerful mourning for days gone by. “Those were the days, my friend!” I’m Facebook friends with many high school classmates. It’s painful to read some of the reflections that look back to high school as the highlight of life. Many in our nation look back to some glory days as the goal for who we should be. It’s tempting, in the church, to look back and see better days. I remember when Easter Sunday meant the church was filled to overflowing. My home church set up rows of folding chairs. If you were late, you had to sit down front in an uncomfortable chair.
Yet the past has its flaws. I remember reading an article, years ago, that spoke of the danger of nostalgia. The article probably struck me because I had a parishioner who subscribed to a magazine titled “Nostalgia.” When the past is glorified, it's flaws are ignored. One of my favorite stories from Westminster Presbyterian Church is an Easter story. One woman told of coming and finding the pew where she usually sat filled to overflowing. She squeezed in. One of the Easter attendees said to her, “You would think that those of you who come every Sunday would stay home on Easter and leave room for us!” The church of my childhood had many C and E Christians (Christmas and Easter), those who came for those high holy days and nothing else. The church of the past has flaws just as the church of the present has flaws. The same can be said of the society in which we live. Every era has its shortcomings. When the past becomes our goal, we are losing sight of the ways it falls short.
“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” The author looked back at ancestors in the faith and spoke of their commitment to future that they would never fully know. Hear the words about Abraham. “For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.” It goes on to declare, “All these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them…if they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had the opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is a heavenly one.” There is no nostalgia here. The memory of the past impels the readers, the hearers of these words to look forward, to be drawn by and shaped by a vision of God’s realm.
This morning’s gospel lesson has familiar words in it: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” We often hear those words as the offering is presented. We hear the word treasure and think of goods, or of financial resources. Our treasure can be counted – in bank accounts, in terms of real property. But, there might be a different way of hearing these words – especially if we consider the context. “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s God pleasure to give you the kingdom.” What greater treasure could there be than God’s realm? What greater treasure can there be than living in a place where God’s ways are embraced – where love wins over fear, where justice is available to all – particularly to those who are vulnerable, where compassion and mercy are known, shared, and experienced? What if the treasure is that for which we pray, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven?” That treasure is, as the writer of the Hebrews wrote, something that is promised that is yet to be known. It calls us forward. It grabs us and shapes us to live differently in this world.
John Shelley said that there is a paradoxical nature to faith. It helps us cope with the world – yet it may also provoke the world. For if our treasure is a world that is shaped by God’s values, we are challenged to critique the world in which we live and work for a world which is a deeper, truer reflection of the inbreaking realm of God.
We, in the church, do ourselves and the world – and God – a disservice when we think that the best days are in the past. Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. The past, even at its best, is not God’s realm. It shows the signs of brokenness – in racism, sexism, violence, wars, and injustice. That is true in the church. It is also true of every society and nation that has/or now exists. We remember in order to know who we are and to be reassured that God has been present in the past. But, the promise is for something better. The promise is that God is still active, that God is still inviting us to participate in living toward a future that we will never know, on earth, in its fullness.
"Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” What we love calls to us. If we love the past, we are stuck and we have no hope. If our treasure is God’s promised future – a future that is not only heavenly but earthly, too, then we are, out of love, to work for that future. “Be dressed for action,” Jesus said, “and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks.”
Perhaps we dream too small. Perhaps we have been unwilling to let the majesty, the magnitude, the broadness, and the wonder of God’s heaven be the treasure that shapes, forms, defines, and calls us. It is that vision that has toppled systems and nations that have perpetuated injustice. It is that vision that has invited us to new understandings of God’s forgiving, redeeming, and reconciling love.
Molaison couldn’t remember. So he couldn’t move forward. We, God’s people, share the stories. We remember. Not to live in the past, but to find in the past that there are those who lived by faith, who believed in God’s promises. They set out to seek the unknown. There are stories and stories and stories. They invite us to set out as they did, seeking God’s promised realm – breaking into the world we know, and beckoning from heaven itself. Our broken world needs the bold faith God invites us to live.