May 7, 2017
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
HOW’S YOUR MEMORY?
President Trump was eager to raise his job approval numbers, so he decided he would add something a little different to his daily schedule. He made arrangements to visit a Washington, D.C. nursing home. The press coverage for something like that, something that wasn’t controversial and that would show what a decent person he really was, might win a few people over.
He was taken aback though when the patients didn’t even seem to recognize him. After several instances of being treated like just an ordinary person, he couldn’t help himself. He asked, “Do you know who I am?” The patient he was talking to said, “No, but if you ask at the front desk, they might be able to tell you.”
So how’s your memory?
Memory is a mystery. Even the scientists who understand the brain best acknowledge that what they don’t know is far greater than what they do know. We’re still just beginning to understand how information gets stored in our brains, and then coded, and then retrieved. Retrieval is the tricky part as I think most all of us can testify.
Here’s a simple question that so far does not have an answer: Does everything, every single thing, that happens to us, get stored
in our brain cells? Everything we have ever seen or heard or experienced – is it all there, somewhere, somehow, just waiting for the right code to pull it back up to our consciousness?
And what about forgetting? Of course, as we get older this is part of the natural process. It’s a nuisance, but it’s normal. And in some cases it’s more than a nuisance. Alzheimer’s Disease is something many of us have first-hand experience with.
But back to forgetting – it’s something everyone does. You don’t have to be old to forget. Our brains were made to remember, but they were also made to forget. Why? Does forgetting serve some useful purpose? And here’s the question we all ask: Why can we remember in detail something that happened back when we were children, but we can’t remember where we put the car keys?
Memory is a mystery. We joke about it. When it slips away, we agonize over it. And we also rejoice, even when our memory isn’t what it used to be – we rejoice at God’s great gift of a brain that can remember.
Oliver Sacks said “the brain is the most incredible thing in the universe.” He was a psychiatrist who wrote the book called, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. He might have called it, Case Studies in Abnormal Clinical Neuropsychiatry, but it probably wouldn’t have sold as well. He wrote about his patients, many of whom suffered from a severe memory disorder called Korsakov’s Syndrome.
We hear stories about people who think they are Napoleon. Dr. Sacks worked with those people on a daily basis. He explained that to lose one’s memory is to lose one’s identity, and identity is so important to us that if we lose it, we will make up a new one.
He wrote in this book about Mr. Thompson. Mr. Thompson’s world was always changing as he transitioned from one identity to another. He was a grocer, then a minister, then a mechanic, then a mayor. As he forgot who he was, he would make up someone new who he was. Over and over and over.
And it took a toll on him. it was hard work. Mr. Thompson was always tired, always tense, always moving. He could never sit still. Oliver Sachs asked the question, “Is this what it means to lose your soul?”
I wonder if that can happen to a nation. What if we reach a point where a critical mass of our people have no memory of our past, our history, our heritage? What if most people are just living for the moment, bouncing from one thing to the next, never engaging in anything that lasts, never building on the work on those who came before? Is it possible for a nation to lose its soul?
The United States, like any other nation, is dependent on memory. But we are exceptional in many ways, one of which is that we are not united by a common race or culture or religion. We are a collection of people who have come from somewhere else. So what holds us together? Some are saying we are coming perilously close to nothing holding us together. But I would say what holds us together still, is an ideal that has been handed down from generation to generation. That ideal is freedom.
Freedom is rather important if you are an American. People have fought and died to protect our freedom. But freedom is fragile. It can go away. It will go away if we forget where it came from, how precious it is, and make certain our love of freedom doesn’t die with us, but gets passed to the next generation.
The Wells Fargo scandal has been back in the news. Last fall it came out that they had opened two million phony bank accounts. 5,300 employees were involved and were fired. They had put making money ahead of taking care of their customers. It was a corporate culture of greed and selfishness. And yet we were told nobody in upper management knew what was going on. No senior executive was fired or even reprimanded. Just a few days ago the Wells Fargo shareholders voted to re-elect every single one of their Board of Directors.
I hate to pick on one company. There are plenty of others out there just as guilty. What they have in common is their public commitment to the ideals of our country, and their private practice of skating around those very ideals.
One reason this happens is memory loss. We’ve forgotten the meaning of freedom. We think it means freedom to make all the money we can without regard to who gets hurt in the process. That’s not our heritage. Our heritage is the unalienable, God-given rights of the individual. Forget that and the ideal that is our foundation will crumble. Without a good memory, a nation can get lost.
But nowhere is memory more important than in religion. Which brings us finally to our scripture for today. I will always get there eventually. We read the first four of the Ten Commandments: “You shall have no other gods before me, no graven images, no taking of the Lord’s name in vain, and remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy.” The fourth commandment commands us to remember.
Some Christians still follow that one strictly. Most don’t. It used to be you would have a hard time finding a store open on a Sunday. Those days are in the distant past.
A friend of mine told me about the day his sister went to the movies on a Sunday. Their family followed the Sabbath commandment strictly. Movies were frowned upon any day of the week, but they were forbidden on Sunday. So my friend’s sister got permission to go to a friend’s house, which she did, but then she went with her friend to the movies. While she was sitting there, feeling guilty the whole time, there was an earthquake. Not a huge one, but big enough to scare the living daylights out of her. She thought it was God’s final judgment, and it was all her fault. She ran home and confessed everything to her parents.
Times have changed. But the commandment is still there. It’s one of just ten, so it must be important. Why is it important?
Because it is the commandment to remember. It is so very important that we remember what God has done for us. Memory loss when it comes to the goodness and faithfulness of God is a most serious thing.
The Ten Commandments are found in two places, Exodus and Deuteronomy. In both places, the commandment is tied to a story.
In Exodus, the passage we read, it is tied to the story of Creation.
Remember the Sabbath, and keep it holy; for in six days God created the world, and on the seventh day God rested (20:11).
When we remember the Sabbath, we remember also God’s creation.
So if your world is full of chaos right now, nothing making any sense, everything falling apart, it’s good to remember that God created this world out of chaos. This world has a Creator, and when God finished it all, God said, “This is good.” And that is the way the world is. It is good, no matter what it looks like to you right now. The world is good, and one day your world will be good, too.
In Deuteronomy the Sabbath commandment is tied to a different story:
Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Because once you were slaves in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out with a mighty hand (15:15).
So when we remember the Sabbath, we remember also how God rescued his people from Egypt. From slavery to freedom. It’s called the Exodus. It’s the defining story of the Old Testament.
Don’t forget that. Especially when you are feeling stuck, when your life is going nowhere that’s good, when you don’t see how anything is ever going to change. Remember, with a mighty hand, God set the Israelites free. And God will do the same for you.
“Remember the Sabbath, and keep it holy.” The question is often asked, why do we worship God on Sunday, not Saturday? Because the Sabbath is Saturday. That is the holy day for Jews still. And also for quite a few Christians, Seventh Day Adventists included.
Here, too many Christians suffer from memory loss. We worship on Sunday because that is the day of the Resurrection. This started very early in the Church. The early Christians gathered each Sunday to worship God, who created the world, who set his people free, and who now had conquered death and gifted his people with new life. So “Remember the Sabbath” now means “Remember the Resurrection.”
Soren Kierkegaard said:
There is one thing that unites us all, it is our forgetting, our over-looking how much we have been loved.
We are loved by our families, who have been patient with us far more than we deserve. We are loved by our friends, who stood by us and with us and for us when no one else did. We are loved by people we don’t even know, but who left a legacy that now benefits us. We are sitting in a sanctuary that was dreamed of and prayed for and paid for by many people, many of whom are no longer with us, but they built this for those who would come after them. They built it for us. All this has been given to us.
We forget how much we have been loved, and we also forget how much we owe these people who love us. I would say our problems begin when we forget that. Our problems begin when we forget that we are loved. And that’s what worship is, Worship is remembering. We come here each Resurrection Day to remember that, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.” And we leave with our memories refreshed as to how much we have been loved.
At the heart of Christian worship is Holy Communion. The word “remember” is prominent in the words Jesus spoke: “Do this in remembrance of me.” We remember Jesus each time we come to his table for communion. We remember his death, we remember his resurrection, we remember his love. For just about 2,000 years now, communion has been the way Christians have remembered how much they are loved.
Speaking of remembering, do you remember Mr. Thompson? It’s been a few minutes, so you may have forgotten already. Mr. Thompson was that man who suffered from Korsakov’s Syndrome and didn’t know who he was. He was always changing identities. He was always in motion. He could never relax. His doctor, Oliver Sacks asked, “Is this what it means to lose your soul?”
Dr. Sacks told in his book of another patient of his who had also lost his memory. His name was Jimmy. Jimmy had lost his memory but Jimmy had most certainly not lost his soul.
One day the nuns at the hospital where Jimmy lived told Dr. Sacks to hurry, come watch Jimmy in the chapel. Dr. Sacks watched, and this is what he saw:
I watched him and I was profoundly moved and impressed, because I saw here an intensity and steadiness of attention and concentration that I have never seen before in him, or conceived him capable of. I watched him kneel and take the sacrament, and I could not doubt the fullness and totality of communion, the perfect alignment of his spirit with the spirit of the mass. Here there was no forgetting. There was no loss of meaning when he was participating in the mass. For he was no longer at the mercy of a faulty and fallible mechanism, but he was absorbed in an act, an act of his whole being which gave him meaning. Jimmy couldn’t make any sense out of his own life. But he found sense, and thus found himself, in an act of remembrance.
It was for Jimmy an act of remembering how much he was loved.
Dear God, thank you that we can remember. Thank you that even though our memory might not be what it once was, even though we might forget more than we remember, we will never forget your love. We might forget who we are, but we will never forget who you are. You are our God. Your nature and your name is love. And you invite us now to your table of blessing, where we will eat of the bread and drink of the wine and where we will remember Jesus. In his name we pray, Amen.