Power to Remember, Freedom to Forget

An early photo of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church’s previous house of worship, now referred to as “The Old Parish Hall.”

An early photo of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church’s previous house of worship, now referred to as “The Old Parish Hall.”

I take the title of this post from a sermon preached by Walter Brueggeman and presented in his collection entitled The Threat of Life: Sermons on Pain, Power, and Weakness.

I read the sermon this morning and I want to pass on to you some thoughts from it that I think apply to any church congregation, and in particular St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Bellingham, Washington, the church I’m privileged to serve.

Brueggeman preached this sermon at a Congregational church in Barrington, Rhode Island on the occasion of their 250th Anniversary. The point of the sermon is to help the congregation remember the foremothers and fathers who had come before them, and at the same time not dwell in the past, but look to the future, confident that God was leading them and providing for them a future.

The main text for the sermon was Isaiah 51, in which the prophet calls upon the listener or reader to remember:

Listen to me, you that pursue righteousness, you that seek the Lord. Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug. Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you; for he was but one when I called him, but I blessed him and made him many. (Isaiah 51:1-2)

Abraham was the one who moved off into the unknown at the call of God, leaving safety and comfort to follow God’s call to a land that he did not know. It was Sarah who laughed when God promised a child in her old age, but Sarah who was transformed, birthed a child, and, as Brueggeman puts it: “ served God’s impossibility in the world,” trusting that “God could create newness out of defeat, barrenness, even death.”

Brueggeman urges the congregation present to remember their foremothers who “laughed in and for God’s power for new life” and fathers in faith “who risked and dared and obeyed.” This is important because “we live in a society that remembers almost nothing,” and the exercise of memory of these ancestors and their risk and struggle gives us “long, time-tested shapes for mission and faith, shapes that summon and continue to shape our faith and to require of us.”

Our current house of worship under construction

Our current house of worship under construction

So, we want to remember those who came before us, who left us a legacy from their sacrifices, their prayers, their investment of their life and labor in sustaining a witness to Jesus Christ that is even now bearing fruit in a community that worships God in Christ and serves the world in Christ’s name. Remembering helps us to invest our life and labor to proclaim to a forgetful and fearful world the love of God in Jesus Christ.

At the same time we remember, we also know that we are not called to remain in nostalgia. Nostalgia is not the foundation for a lively sense of God’s presence in the now.

Brueggeman focuses us on another great text from Isaiah:

Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. The wild animals will honor me, the jackals and ostriches, for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people. (Isaiah 43:18-20)

Brueggeman, on the occasion of this anniversary, urged the congregation not to wax nostalgic and romantic about the “good old days”. Isaiah’s community would have had occasion to remember the deliverance from Egypt, the exodus, and what God did to bring them to freedom. Isaiah spoke to a community that had a new thing to consider, which was the deliverance from their exile in Babylon. Isaiah was trying to focus attention on expectation that God was doing “a new thing” for them, and to press into that “new thing.”

And here’s where Brueggeman’s sermon, preached somewhere in the 1990’s, evoked for me a very contemporary reality. He begins to “hazard a word about the new thing of God which is to cause us to forget the old wonders.” And here his words - formed as they are by a deep familiarity with and struggle over the texts of the Bible, strike me as having the character of a contemporary prophecy, and are worthy of extensive quoting:

We have come off a certain ordering of reality that has been long established and which seemed right, a relationship of privilege and poverty, of power and pain, and we learned how to manage that arrangement. It does seem as though the lid has blown off that arrangement: the old privileges of wealth and power lack credibility, the old authority of whites and males is trembling, the old advantage of European rootage and all the rest is in deep jeopardy. And it makes us very frightened.

God is indeed doing a new thing among us. God is fashioning a new pattern of social relations in which privilege will have to attend to poverty, in which power will have to submit to pain, in which advantage will have to be recruited for compassion, in which old priorities will have to be repositioned in order to let in people long kept out. God is doing a new thing.

1. The loss of the old scares all of us, liberal and conservative, because we feel threatened and displaced. And that loss causes us to do anxious, mean, and selfish things to each other, things that live at the edge of brutality. It will be useful in our turn to the future on this anniversary day to notice the high level of stress that the loss of the old produces and to honor each other in our fear and our anxiety.

2. Nobody knows the shape of the newness. That is what produces the uncertainty and anxiety. I believe that in all the great public, missional issues, we will live for a while between the times, until God’s spirit leads us into a freshly formed life together. That anticipation of God’s newness requires alert watching for glimpses of God’s work and God’s will.

3. The newness of God seldom comes without obedient human investment. That is where the church comes in. This church is not permitted by God to sit around in its building and its reputation, but is summoned by God to

* be a work for God’s current newness

*think with the riskiness of father Abraham and to receive with the delight of Mother Sarah

*be the womb for birthing a new wonder in the world, rivers in the desert, a genuine human. home in an arena of stark fear. This of course will require the church to think quite freshly about the future, and think very large about its mission in the city and in the world. It is for this that we have been called.

Brueggeman concludes his sermon with these rousing words of benediction:

…Go out. Go out from old, tired stuff, go out from fears that divide you, go out from old quarrels unresolved. Go out from old sins forgiven. Go out from old decisions that have scarred and wounded. Go out from old memories that have become graven images. Go out into God’s new, demanding mission.

*Go the way of father Abraham, to a new way and place of life.

*Go out laughing like mother Sarah, surprised by new life.

*Go out to neighbors waiting for a caring act of generosity.

As you go, singing, celebrating, and grateful, imagine concretely and know that

*the mission of this church is not finished,

*the work of this church is not a holding action,

*the future of this church is not business as usual.

One of the texts for that day in Rhode Island was from the letter of Paul to the Philppians, and Brueggeman gives Paul the last word:

Not that I have already obtained or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and striving forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us then who are mature be of like mind. (Philippians 3:12-15)

All of this had me thinking of St. Paul’s and our calling from God. It’s the time of year when we reach out to you for your financial support of St. Paul’s mission in the coming year. I want more than anything for our giving to St. Paul’s to be motivated by our free response to God’s gracious and transforming call to us in Jesus. These words from Brueggeman had me hoping that all of us as a community of faith at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church will both have the power to remember with gratitude the ancestors in faith upon whose legacy we build, and to forget all that would keep us from welcoming God’s new work among us today.

A paraglider about to launch from Samish Overlook.  The paraglider has learned through many previous acts of trust to do this with confidence.   Will we entrust ourselves to the newness and promise of God in this moment? -Photo by author

A paraglider about to launch from Samish Overlook. The paraglider has learned through many previous acts of trust to do this with confidence. Will we entrust ourselves to the newness and promise of God in this moment? -Photo by author