Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
September 11, 2016
“Take Your Memories and Remember Them”
Exodus 32: 1-14 – The Message
When the people realized that Moses was taking forever in coming down off the mountain, they rallied around Aaron and said, “Do something. Make gods for us who will lead us. That Moses, the man who got us out of Egypt—who knows what’s happened to him?”
2-4 So Aaron told them, “Take off the gold rings from the ears of your wives and sons and daughters and bring them to me.” They all did it; they removed the gold rings from their ears and brought them to Aaron. He took the gold from their hands and cast it in the form of a calf, shaping it with an engraving tool.
The people responded with enthusiasm: “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up from Egypt!”
5 Aaron, taking in the situation, built an altar before the calf.
Aaron then announced, “Tomorrow is a feast day to God!”
6 Early the next morning, the people got up and offered Whole-Burnt-Offerings and brought Peace-Offerings. The people sat down to eat and drink and then began to party. It turned into a wild party!
7-8 God spoke to Moses, “Go! Get down there! Your people whom you brought up from the land of Egypt have fallen to pieces. In no time at all they’ve turned away from the way I commanded them: They made a molten calf and worshiped it. They’ve sacrificed to it and said, ‘These are the gods, O Israel, that brought you up from the land of Egypt!’”
9-10 God said to Moses, “I look at this people—oh! what a stubborn, hard-headed people! Let me alone now, give my anger free reign to burst into flames and incinerate them. But I’ll make a great nation out of you.”
11-13 Moses tried to calm his God down. He said, “Why, God, would you lose your temper with your people? Why, you brought them out of Egypt in a tremendous demonstration of power and strength. Why let the Egyptians say, ‘He had it in for them—he brought them out so he could kill them in the mountains, wipe them right off the face of the Earth.’ Stop your anger. Think twice about bringing evil against your people! Think of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants to whom you gave your word, telling them ‘I will give you many children, as many as the stars in the sky, and I’ll give this land to your children as their land forever.’”
14 And God did think twice. He decided not to do the evil he had threatened against his people.
Some of you have memories of the moment when you learned that The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated. Perhaps you were standing at the kitchen sink and overheard it on the radio in the background. Or on the street as you witnessed a wave of grief overcome each person as they heard the news. Or not until the morning after on your way to school. And before that, Bobby Kennedy. And before that, JFK.
I was only three years old when Dr. King was killed on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. I was alive, but I have no memory of what it was like to hear the news. So I understand but still find it hard to believe that there has been a decade and a half of children born who don’t have memories of seeing the Twin Towers fall, the Pentagon in smoke, and a field in Pennsylvania littered with debris from a plane crashed into the ground.
Where were you at this moment, this morning, 15 years ago? What were you doing? I recall the desk I was sitting at. The window I was looking out… of going home, driving in the car listening to the radio as announcers struggled to keep on top of fact and rumor. Nearly all of us have memories of 9/11 – Yes, the videos played over and over, but more importantly, gut reactions. Tears, confusion, anger… helplessness.
Diana Butler Bass asks a really compelling question. We may have memories. But have we remembered?
She says, “There is a difference between memory – the snapshots that stay in our minds always – and remembering. Remembering means to ‘put back together’ the pieces of the past, to rearrange the pictures of memory in order to make meaning, to heal, to forgive, to inspire. Memory and remembering are related, but they are not the same thing. Memory is simply ‘not forgetting.’ Remembering is the hard work of seeing, understanding, making sense of, and learning from the past.”
I can’t tell you how helpful this was when I first read it. I think of Alzheimer’s patients and the cruel loss of remembering, not just memories. I think of what it feels like after a loved one dies. There is a scattershot of memories, but in the moment, feeling like our lives are spinning out of control, it is difficult to catch hold of them to create a narrative. Rather, images race by, day and night, interrupting our thoughts and our sleep. Good memories and painful memories, times of joy and times of hurt and betrayal. Then slowly, frustratingly slowly, they come into focus until we can finally see the trajectory of their life – when the questions of why and how begin to make sense. Isn’t that the work of grieving? Grief work. It is when we can finally take our memories and begin to remember, which is, to make meaning, to heal, to forgive, to learn from. It takes time.
It takes time, and so perhaps that is why the slaves who had been freed from the grip of Pharaoh by the hand of the Lord were so quick to jump ship as soon as they were afraid. How long after they had crossed through the Red Sea; how long, from the freedom side of the Red Sea; How long after watching the Pharaoh’s chariots get stuck in the mud and the waters return did this incident happen, this debacle known as the golden calf?
They had been free for a little over a month.
They still had vivid and fresh memories of standing at the edge of the sea feeling trapped. They still had memories of the ground shaking, the noise getting louder, the pounding of chariots and horses coming closer and closer, ready to force them back to their captivity. Their memories were that close, mere weeks back, but they hadn’t yet remembered. They hadn’t yet remembered whose they are, who set them free. They hadn’t yet remembered why they were set free. So that’s why I believe scripture had to, still has to, repeatedly declare – Remember who brought you out of Egypt from the bondage of slavery. It was the Lord your God.
Remembering is the process, always continuing, of putting back together. All of us do it personally, collectively. And there is still a lot of work as a nation to put us back together. Not just memory but meaning.
We can’t stop remembering, trying to sense of these people, places, and events. Otherwise, such memories will overwhelm. We will not progress as a people. And we will keep repeating cycles that draw our attention away from that which has meaning. And all that really, actually, seriously, truly, matters. That which reminds us who we are. It is easy to be distracted. We will make silly choices or serious ones that lead to such false gods as a golden calf or war and waterboarding. One of the geniuses of Alcoholic Anonymous is the retelling of the stories of the darkest days in order to not repeat them.
Before they remembered, when the now-free Hebrew slaves became afraid, they did what we, unbelievably, still do. They turned to their possessions to save them. An equally afraid, or perhaps remarkably unscrupulous, leader named Aaron, within an instant, got the people to believe in the power of gold. Money will keep us safe. Something big and shiny and easy will protect us from being afraid, of feeling alone. Remember when we called our golden calf “Shock and Awe?” It may seem remarkable that the people were so quick to give up their personal possessions for this collective action, but it was still done for short-sighted, and manipulated, reasons. Because they clearly hadn’t yet remembered that it was God who saved them.
Which royally ticked God off. Understandably. Can you imagine how betrayed you would feel? Taken for granted? I mean, remember, this wasn’t their first expression of ingratitude. The minute the people crossed over the sea to freedom they began to complain. Have you left us out here to starve? Remember how good we had it back in Egypt? When we were slaves we had enough to eat: watermelons, cucumbers, leeks… I’m hungry. Oh, but I don’t want that.
They were utterly dependent. And totally ungrateful. And easily led astray. Let’s worship gold – something pretty that we can see. Moses had to calm God down. And in a remarkable expression of grace, God understood and forgave them.
Memories and remembering. Today is Homecoming Sunday. Walking up the front sidewalk, through the narthex, and into the sanctuary after having been gone for a little while brings with it a flood of memories, although, with this new configuration, there are new memories to create. And yet, the rock wall, the colorful windows, and many of the faces, retain our connection to the past.
Do you have memories of the first time you came to this church – parking, entering, finding a seat? Who did you meet first? What did it feel like? Did it feel like home right away or did you have to give it some time? Did your first time here involve grief over another church you had to leave behind? Some of you don’t have those memories but your parents do of standing with you in their arms in front of this baptismal font.
But all those memories won’t mean as much without remembering – for example, to remember who we are and whose we are. We belong to the God of freedom and liberation. We are loved by the God of grace and forgiveness. We are given courage by the God who does not give up on us, no matter how understandable it would be that God would say – I’ve had enough of you. The God who says when we are weary and afraid, when we’ve lost what is most dear to us, “Come to me and I will give you rest.”
And do remember why we’re here? Because here we are reminded of what really matters. Not our pretty possessions but the beautiful world around us. We are reminded of what we have, not what we lack. We are here to practice kindness and justice and humility before our God. We are here to remember. And when we remember, we can see, we can understand, we can make sense of our lives. And we can be called forward.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that in the sacrament of communion Jesus said “Do this to remember me.” Not to simply have memories. “Each time you eat this bread and drink this cup, re-member me.” Be my hands, feet, and face in the world.
Whether it be the 15th anniversary of 9/11 or recollecting the death of a loved one – a father or a mother, a husband or a wife, a son or a daughter, a brother or a sister, a best friend; whether it’s coming home to church after a time away, aware of the great cloud of witnesses that surround us here… Whatever the situation, how can you take your memories and remember them?
 Diana Butler Bass, Patheos blog, “9/11: Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence”
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