November 1, 2015 —Totenfest
Church of Peace, United Church of Christ
Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield
Psalm 23 and Hebrews 11:17-34
Courage to Remember, First in a Series
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil:
for thou art with me…
These are the opening lines of the twenty-third Psalm. I invite you to remember the first time you heard this scripture… In my case, I was maybe eight or nine watching Little House on the Prairie. (I was so impressed that Pa could recite this scripture from memory!) Maybe you first learned this Psalm in Sunday School or Confirmation. Maybe it was at your brother’s funeral, or maybe this morning is the first time you’ve heard these words.
In our Christian faith, Psalm twenty-three is a touchstone. It’s like the Lord’s Prayer or the Doxology, a piece of poetry we can memorize and recall when we need it. Because who doesn’t go through the valley of the shadow of death? Who doesn’t find themselves thrown into the wilderness thick with monsters and angels? So it’s good to remember, to rehearse the promise: The LORD is my shepherd.
Of course, rehearsing the words is one kind of remembering. We go over them and over them, say them when you wake up and when you lay down; sing the words while you’re driving or raking leaves. This kind of remembering is taming work that helps us get a handle on things. It makes it seem like the worst thing would be forgetting, when of course, we human people will forget. But maybe if we repeat it enough times until it is solidified in our subconscious… Maybe. If that’s all there is to remembering, then it wouldn’t be so dangerous…
Our second scripture comes to us from the book of Hebrews. We don’t know who wrote the book of Hebrews, but its purpose is to encourage the early Christians to persevere in their faith and remember the supremacy of Jesus Christ. What we heard a few minutes ago was an excerpt from the famous of Honor Roll of Faith, a passage extolling the heroes from the great Bible stories. Remember Abraham so willing to sacrifice his son. Remember Jacob and Esau. Remember Moses leading the people across the Red Sea to escape the Egyptians.
On the one hand, this litany of remembering is a classic technique in the Bible. A number of Psalms follow this format and retell the great Bible stories through song. Psalm one-o-six is a long song of confession recounting the ways Israel has sinned throughout history. Our ancestors did not remember God’s love in Egypt, but God delivered them. Our ancestors worshipped a golden calf at Horeb. They forgot the LORD and grumbled, and God sent the plagues… See on the one hand, this listing rehearses the things that happened before so we do not forget.
On the other hand, there’s no way to do this without an agenda. This is why some things get remembered and other things don’t make the cut. This is why the writer of Hebrews announces this Honor Roll of Faith then says “Yet all these [heroes] did not receive what was promised since God provided something better” —meaning Jesus Christ (Hebrews 11:39). That is quite a spin to put on the whole Old Testament and one I don’t think would be appreciated by our Jewish sisters and brothers. But it makes sense if the purpose of the book is to proclaim that all history is driving toward Christ.
Certainly there are issues with historical integrity. But the writer of Hebrews is exposing the underside of remembering. Now it’s not just rehearsing the facts, so we don’t forget. Remembering is creative work. It’s piecing together what happened. Now the danger isn’t forgetting; it’s what we might find out.
Remembering is work that stirs up the stories and wakes up the ghosts, and everything was fine when the truth was rehearsed the same way. But now… Everything was fine with the floor as long as you don’t tear it up and expose the asbestos underneath. Remembering can tear up the very floor we’re standing on.
Why would anybody do this? Why wake up the ghosts…
We don’t know the whole story about our people, the things they did and the things they survived. We might learn that our ancestors were involved in atrocities. Whatever your lineage, I’m pretty sure that we all have ancestors who were involved in systems of horror. So how do we live with that…
Or there’s this, even after someone dies, your relationship continues. You could find out something about the person you love that changes the relationship, that changes you. You could remember the pain still unhealed, all the guilt so unforgiven. Why would anybody go waking up the ghosts…
Because those ghosts might love you. Because even though we’re still getting to know each other, what we know for sure is we’re all exquisitely connected to God, the source of love. So maybe it’s not just horror or asbestos we run the risk of finding… we might find something much better.
During my internship at the hospital, I spent a lot of time in the unit for pediatric oncology — kids with cancer. Opposite the elevators, there was a quote stenciled on the wall over a painted bird. The quote read, “Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul.”
The first time I saw it, I knew it was Emily Dickinson. In eighth and ninth grade, I loved reading Emily Dickinson’s poetry. I loved her frankness about death and her strange sense of life. I remember buying a tiny book of her poems at our favorite book store in Ohio. Seeing this quote in the hospital made me remember being the same age as some of these patients and so hungry for honesty about death and life.
Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without the words
And never stops at all
And sweetest in the gale is heard
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.
I’ve heard it in the chillest land
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.
It is thought that Emily Dickinson wrote this poem around the year eighteen-sixty-one. But this poem, like most of her others, wasn’t found until after she died twenty-five years later. Upon her death, her sister Lavinia came upon a treasure trove of Emily’s poetry. She remembered Emily by finding and poring through her words, and Lavinia realized the poems needed to be published. For Lavinia, remembering Emily is not about memorizing her words; it’s discovering them, then releasing them into the world where they showcase our human interconnectedness.
In preparing for this sermon, I went to look up the poem “Hope is the thing with feathers.” Sure enough, I found that book I bought in Ohio. I see my name written inside the cover in my junior high handwriting in purple ink, the i’s dotted with musical notes. Only thing is, several poems in the book are marked up with notes that I didn’t write. These comments are written in my grandma’s handwriting, my grandma who died twenty years ago.
I can’t explain how this happened. It is possible she had the same copy of this book, and we got our copies mixed up so many years ago. What I know for sure is I’m still learning things about my grandma. I’m still getting to know her, and that makes all the difference. This is the very promise of our faith.
Remembering is the creative work that exposes our interconnectedness. It’s how Rahab who hid the spies on her roof ended up making the great Honor Roll of Faith in today’s scripture. It’s how the words of Emily Dickinson ended up getting stenciled on the hospital wall ready to greet parents whose children have cancer. It is how the names of people cover this church —in the windows, on brass nameplates, on the honor roll of veterans— they form a mighty cloud of witnesses. They keep on blessing Church of Peace.
Through remembering, we discover our exquisite connection to one another, our connection to Jesus Christ. And the good news is we are still getting to know him. Even if you have known Jesus your whole life, you can still change. Even if we get the words exactly right, this time, they might mean something different. It is never too late to be made new.
In the twenty-third Psalm, there is a moment of turning in the poem. It’s a lot like the turning that happens during remembering —here I think I’m just digging up the past, waking up the ghosts, when actually I am changing and growing in love, moving closer to Christ even now.
In Psalm twenty-three what happens is the speaker begins by announcing the steadfastness of God. The speaker gets the words exactly right, but pretty soon, her recitation runs out. Instead of talking about God, she begins talking to God. As though our faith isn’t just a ritual so well rehearsed, but an invitation to keep going through the horror and the hope, to keep getting to know the ghosts, keep getting to know the Lord because, in this, we are transformed by God’s love. No wonder it takes courage to remember!
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil. For you are with me. Your rod and your staff comfort me. You prepare a table before me…
I will dwell in the house of God my whole life long.
For you are my shepherd, I shall not want.
You make me lie down in green pastures, and you lead me beside still waters.
You restore my soul.
Remember, then you know we’ll never be the same again. Amen.