The Sin of Forgetfulness

FOURTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9

Psalm 15

James 1:17-27

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Prayer of the Day: O God our strength, without you we are weak and wayward creatures. Protect us from all dangers that attack us from the outside, and cleanse us from all evil that arises from within ourselves, that we may be preserved through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“But take care and watch yourselves closely, so as neither to forget the things that your eyes have seen nor to let them slip from your mind all the days of your life; make them known to your children and your children’s children—” Deuteronomy 4:9.  

This warning comes from Moses at what seems like the end of Israel’s long journey from slavery in Egypt through the perils of the wilderness to the brink of the Promise Land. Moses knows, however, that the journey is far from over and that he will not be with his people on the next stage. This is Moses’ last opportunity to address the people. He knows that Israel will face the challenge of transitioning from nomadic to sedentary existence. He knows that Israel will encounter the perils of warfare. But these are not the most formidable dangers the people will face. The greatest threat to Israel’s existence is forgetfulness. So Moses warns the people emphatically not to forget “the things your eyes have seen.”  Israel must never forget that they were slaves in Egypt and that God in God’s mercy liberated them from a life of bondage and opened up for them a new existence governed not by the gods of a ruling class, but the God who is champion of the marginalized. No longer would they be slaves whose bodies and labor belong to human overlords. Henceforth, they are to live under the governance of just laws that protect the “widow and the fatherless” and apply equally to citizens and resident aliens.

Forgetfulness is a natural human trait. Often, it is selective. As Barbara Strisand sings in, The Way We Were, theme song of the movie by that name:

Memories, may be beautiful and yet
What’s too painful to remember
We simply choose to forget

There was much in Israel’s history that Israel might well have wished to forget: the people’s panic and cowardice on the shore of the Red Sea as the Egyptian army approached and Moses appealed for them to trust in God; their ingratitude for the food, water and protection God had provided for forty years in the wilderness; their initial refusal to enter into the Promised Land-which resulted in their forty years of wilderness wandering. They might have wished they had a more flattering narrative to recite. Thus, Moses warns them later on in his final remarks: “Beware lest you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.’” Deuteronomy 8:17.

Israel took this admonition to heart, including in her worship liturgies hymns such as the following:

We have heard with our ears, O God,
   our ancestors have told us,
what deeds you performed in their days,
   in the days of old:
you with your own hand drove out the nations,
   but them you planted;
you afflicted the peoples,
   but them you set free;
for not by their own sword did they win the land,
   nor did their own arm give them victory;
but your right hand, and your arm,
   and the light of your countenance,
   for you delighted in them.  Psalm 44:1-3.

Nonetheless, the people frequently did forget that their freedom and their land were gifts that came with heavy responsibilities. Israel often succumbed to the temptation to treat its status as God’s people as an entitlement rather than gift. This forgetfulness finally led to Israel’s conquest and exile.

The church requires the same stern warning given by Moses. Too frequently we have forgotten that we have been called to serve those deemd “least” within the human family and imagined instead that our status as God’s chosen people is one of privilege. We have rejoiced in the conviction that we are “saved,” but forgotten the reason for which we were saved. We have often traded the integrity of our witness for political influence, social recognition and wealth. We have confused patriotic aspirations with the demands of discipleship and white middle class respectability for morality. We have courted the favor of the wealthy and powerful while shunning contact with the poor, homeless and marginalized. In sum, we have forgotten our story or, perhaps more accurately, traded it away for an easier and more flattering narrative.

This is why we have the season of Lent and Holy Week. There are no heroes in the Passion Narrative; only traders, deserters and cowards. Judas the traitor. Peter the denier. James and John who fell asleep at their posts. The twelve who turned and fled at the approach of danger. We tell these unflattering stories on ourselves to remind ourselves who we are. We are the people who failed Jesus in his time of greatest need-and too frequently fail him still. Yet we are also spiritual descendants of the ones the resurrected Lord sought out as they cowered behind locked doors, sending them out with the good news of God’s inbreaking reign. Faithless as we often are, God is ever faithful. Forgetful as we are of God’s kindness toward us, God remembers God’s promises to us and continues to send prophets, preachers and teachers to remind us who we are and what God has done and continues to do for us.

Truthful remembering is often a painful process. Nothing illustrates the point better than the fanatic resistance of white politicians and their constituents to educational efforts to come to terms with the role played by racism and white supremacy in our nation’s history. There is much in our national past that a lot of us would like to forget, much of our story that we would rather remain untold. Many of us would prefer that the whitewashed (pun intended) version of history we were taught in school remain unchallenged. The good news the church has to offer here is that the truth, painful as it might be, sets us free. Being reminded who we are can be devastating, but if at the same time we are reminded who God is, it can be redemptive. We cannot change what the past tells us about who we are, but Jesus’ good word to us is that God’s future, not our past, can control who we will be tomorrow. I believe the American Church is in a marvelous position to give our nation the gift of repentance and a vision of the future it so desperately needs. But until we first receive it ourselves, we have nothing to offer. For that reason, I have joined the call of many believers for our churches, particularly those that are predominantly white and more particularly my own Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, to commit to the making of reparations to Black American churches and their ministries. What is the purpose of the church if not to remind the world what it means to be human and show it what justice and reconciliation look like?

Here is a poem in which Langston Hughes calls upon his black sisters and brothers to remember. It is perhaps in some respets the kind of remembering to which Moses called Israel when the people were still enslaved in Egypt. It speaks to Americans a harsh, but true word. We would do well not to forget it.

Remember    

Remember
The days of bondage—
And remembering—
Do not stand still.
Go to the highest hill
And look down upon the town
Where you are yet a slave.
Look down upon any town in Carolina
Or any town in Maine, for that matter,
Or Africa, your homeland—
And you will see what I mean for you to see—
             The white hand:
             The thieving hand.
             The white face:
             The lying face.
             The white power:
             The unscrupulous power
That makes of you
The hungry wretched thing you are today.

Source: New Haven: Beinecke Library, Yale University, (Published in Poetry, January 2009). Langston Hughes was an important African American voice in the “Harlem Renaissance” of the 1920s. Though well-educated and widely traveled, Hughes’ poetry never strayed far from his roots in the African American community. Early in his career, Hughes’ work was criticized by some African American intellectuals for portraying what they viewed as an unflattering representation of back life. In a response to these critics, Hughes replied, “I didn’t know the upper class Negroes well enough to write much about them. I knew only the people I had grown up with, and they weren’t people whose shoes were always shined, who had been to Harvard, or who had heard of Bach. But they seemed to me good people, too.”  Today Langston Hughes is recognized globally as a towering literary figure of the 20th Century. You can read more about Hughes and discover more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website (from which the above quote is taken).

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