Updated: Oct 11, 2022
My sister and I argue a great deal less than we used to, but, when we do, the topic is often “memories of our father.” You see, my dad died when I was nine, and for many years I had very few memories of him. My sister and I agreed that this was probably the result of trauma – what the psychologists call “repression.” It was simply too painful to remember him, so I didn’t. But when I went into the discernment process something kind of astounding happened: memories of my father came flooding back, bringing with them immense joy and not a small amount of new self-understanding. The only problem? My sister says that several of these memories are not “real” – that the timeline and/or circumstances I describe surrounding them doesn’t make sense.
This is not an unusual phenomenon. Human memory is notably impressionable. While we remember unremarkable things quite well, especially with practice, emotional memories are often fraught with inaccuracies. That’s why eyewitness testimony, far from being the gold standard of court evidence, is often actually misleading. Knowing this, it is easy to believe that my sister is right – that many of my recovered memories of my dad – or at least the details of them - are simply wrong.
But maybe I don’t care – because the more important issue for me is whether my memories represent the true nature of my relationship with my father. Does it really matter if we visited Santa’s workshop when I six or when I was seven? Is it critical to know the correct name of the church we attended on Cape Cod? And, perhaps most importantly, is my memory of playing the role of “priest” in my fourth grade Sunday School children’s Eucharist unlikely because women weren’t ordained in the Church for another two years? I don’t think so. Either way, such “memories” have shaped my understanding of my relationship with my dad and helped make me who I am, whether they are perfectly accurate or not.
So it is with our faith. Who and what we believe about God are not based on individual passages of scripture or one way of interpreting them. Our faith is formed by the evidence of our senses, the use of our intelligence, and the deep knowledge of our hearts. And we know God not just through our own finest or most traumatic thoughts of him, but by our collective memory of God’s relationship with all of humanity throughout time. That is why it is so very wrong to insist that any one human being or religion understands the true nature of God. It is also why so many people today are confused about the difference between genuine and false prophecy – and why we seem so very far from one another and the possibility of Beloved Community.
This is not a new problem. It is the same dilemma faced by the freshly exiled Israelites way back in 597 BCE who wanted to know when they could return home. While other prophets encouraged them to believe that they would be back in Jerusalem in no time, Jeremiah said just the opposite. He told them that needed to get used to their new circumstances, because they weren’t going anywhere until they understood what had gone wrong in their relationship with God – and that was going to take time – a lot of it.
We are in a similar boat – and we find the prophet’s words just as enraging as the exiled Israelites did. We want a simple fix for our spiritual separation – our exile - from our fellow human beings – and we want it now. Some preachers are only too happy to oblige, suggesting that if we separate the sinful from the saved and follow stringent and antiquated rules based on single passages of scripture, we will be saved. This is what the writer of the letter to Timothy called wrangling over words – dictating a relationship with God that is based on particulars rather than the entirety of God’s interactions with humanity. When we focus only on the parts of scripture that only support our ideas, we lose sight of the inclusive character of God and how God’s very nature shapes us.
God’s nature is good. Ours is a God that has, from our creation, sought the best for us and the best of us. We know this because our collective memories contain story after story about God’s forgiveness, healing, sacrifice, and love. This is the common thread of all holy scripture: God loves us. God is willing to die for us. God can raise us from our basest selves to share in her glory. And that, the letter to Timothy tells us, is what we must remember – because when we remember and recognize the goodness of God, we cannot help but be grateful. In fact, we become, like today’s psalmist, overwhelmed with the desire to offer our thanks and praise.
The problem is that, like many an eyewitness before us, we are so distracted by emotions like fear, anger, and desire that our collective memory of God slips away from us. As we forget, we start to attribute God’s gifts to our own creativity and wisdom. We become convinced that it is our job to control the world and the people around us – and when we do it well, we are rightfully rewarded, and when we do it poorly, we are punished. In other words, we start to think the world revolves around us.
This is no way to live – not only because it is sinful - separating us from God and one another - but because it is depressing, exhausting, and hopeless. It is a life like that of the ten lepers in today’s gospel. They were ostracized from their families and communities and marked as sinful, simply because of the condition of their skin. Each day they dragged themselves to any place that had the potential to heal them – and each night they laid down on the dirt, making sure they were far enough away from their “clean” neighbors that they wouldn’t pollute them. That’s because both the afflicted and unafflicted believed that their true selves could be judged simply on the circumstances of their lives. That’s why, when Jesus healed them, nine people were happy to go their way, assuming that they had finally paid for the sin that plagued them. They thought that their slates – like their bodies- were now clean. They believed that their cure – like their curse- was about them, and this understanding kept them from being grateful for Jesus’s gift of healing.
But one person did not go on his way. One person stopped and considered what had been done for him. One person remembered that Jesus’s actions were consistent with the nature of God – not of an eye for an eye but of beauty, mercy, and grace. He remembered - and then he stopped, turned around, and gave thanks.
What a tremendous blessing – to be able to let go of the conviction that we alone bear life’s burdens and simply drop them, abundantly grateful for God’s presence in creation, in one another, and in ourselves. But that’s all that God asks of us - to remember who God is and try to live into their image. No one memory – no matter how powerful – makes us who we are - and no one story or scripture can give us faith. Having faith means consistently recognizing all the ways God has been present to each of us, even if we don’t quite remember it the same way. It means recalling that it is God who created us and that we are each wonderfully made to good purpose. If we can do that, how can we help but be grateful? How can we not stop, turn, and remember to say, “thanks be to God”? AMEN.